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China’s Mars rover appears to have stopped roving

China’s Zhurong rover landed on Mars to great local fanfare in May 2021 before it set about exploring the dusty surface.

But recent images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have shown that Zhurong has not moved for at least the last five months. And China has so far said nothing on the matter.

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The orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured images of China’s Zhurong rover on March 11, 2022, once again on September 8, 2022, and most recently on February 7, 2023.

By analyzing the rover’s position in the various images, we can see that Zhurong has not moved since at least September 2022.

We do know that the vehicle had been put in a state of hibernation four months earlier so that it could sleep through the harsh winter conditions in Mars’ Utopia Planitia region. After that, it was expected that the rover would continue with its explorations toward the end of 2022, when the improved conditions would have allowed for the efficient powering of the rover’s onboard battery.

But rather than offer an update on the condition of its rover, the Chinese space authorities have thus far failed to provide any meaningful news about Zhurong, and whether it’s expected to start working again.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity, a source said last month that it seemed that “most likely the sandstorms have seriously weakened Zhurong’s capacity to use its solar panels to generate power.”

Some have suggested that while the rover’s four solar panels were designed to resist dust, images taken at different dates show that dust has nevertheless been gathering on the panels, hindering the vehicle’s ability to generate power.

Mars is famous for its harsh sandstorms. Indeed, it’s this very same issue that finally prevented power generation on NASA’s InSight lander, forcing that mission to end in December.

On the plus side for China, the country became only the second in history after the U.S. to successfully operate a rover on Mars when Zhurong reached the red planet in May 2021. On top of that, the rover successfully completed its targeted three-month mission, which included various scientific explorations.

Now we’re just waiting for an update from the Chinese authorities to find out if Zhurong will ever rove again.

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