China's Zhurong rover may have reached the end of its lifespan on the Red Planet.
New images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal that the Mars rover did not move from its spot on Utopia Planitia, a large plain in Mars' northern hemisphere, between September 2022 and February 2023. The rover had been in a planned hibernation since May 2022, but was expected to wake up in December as winter in Mars' northern hemisphere came to a close and sunlight to power the rover became more abundant.
However, China's space agency has been silent on the rover's status, according to Live Science's sister site Space.com. In January, two anonymous sources familiar with the country's Mars program, known as the Tianwen-1 mission, told the South China Morning Post that the rover has failed to re-establish communication with mission control.
The new images from NASA were released Feb. 21 and show the rover on Sept. 8, 2022 and Feb. 7, 2023. The lack of movement suggests that the rover is still in hibernation. The reason could be an unusually cold Martian winter — the temperature must be at least 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius) for Zhurong to operate, according to Tianwen-1 mission officials — or it could be that dust is obscuring the rover's solar panels, making it impossible for the robot to power up. Dusty solar panels spelled the doom of NASA's Mars InSight rover, which sent its last photograph back to Earth on Dec. 19, 2022, after four years on the Red Planet.
Zhurong has yet to be declared officially dead, and might come back to life if temperatures warm or if a storm blows its solar panels clean. However, the new images confirm that the rover did not wake as expected at the end of its planned hibernation period.
Zhurong is China's first planetary rover. It began its exploration of the Martian surface on May 22, 2021, beaming photographs and audio clips of the Utopia Planitia landscape back to Earth. The rover carries a ground-penetrating radar for imaging the Martian subsurface, a magnetometer to measure local magnetic fields, a climate station, multiple cameras, and spectroscopy instruments to determine the molecular makeup of Mars samples.
The original mission was planned to last three months, but Zhurong continued operating for a full year before its planned hibernation. The larger Tianwen-1 mission also includes an orbiter, which will continue to collect data on Mars' atmosphere and surface regardless of the rover's fate.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.