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Chinese scientists scramble to wake Mars rover, plan to send probe to investigate, sources say

Scientists are still waiting for a signal from China’s Mars rover, which was expected to wake from hibernation last month, according to two sources familiar with the country’s Mars exploration programme.
The solar-powered Zhurong switched to sleep mode in May so it could wait out the red planet’s cold winter and fierce sandstorms.
The Post independently confirmed with two sources on Thursday that the rover should have resumed running by now, but no contact has been established.

Scientists are scrambling to find out what happened, but “most likely the sandstorms have seriously weakened Zhurong’s capacity to use its solar panels to generate power”, said one source based in Xichang in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
The sources said Chinese space authorities planned to send the Tianwen-1 probe – now circling Mars in an elliptical orbit – to take pictures of the rover, which is south of its landing site in a large plain known as Utopia Planitia.
However, a Beijing-based source said ground control had encountered difficulty when downloading the latest data from the orbiting probe, which is equipped with two cameras.
Both sources declined to be named as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

It was predicted that Zhurong would resume operations around December 26 as the planet’s northern hemisphere entered its spring season and environmental conditions improved.

According to Jia Yang, deputy chief designer of the Tianwen-1 probe system, the rover is designed to wake up automatically when two conditions are met: its power level must hit 140 watts and the temperature of key components, batteries included, must exceed minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit).
Scientists had hoped that after waking up, Zhurong would continue to head south and visit a place believed to have been the location of an ancient ocean, Jia said in September.
In May 2021, Zhurong and the Tianwen-1 lander successfully touched down on Mars as part of China’s first independent mission to the red planet, making it the only country besides the US to have accomplished such a feat.

Zhurong was designed to have a lifespan of three months, but it remained operational for one year and travelled nearly 2km (1.24 miles) to survey the terrain. Using its ground-penetrating radar, scientists found evidence for two major flooding events believed to have occurred millions of years ago.
Zhurong relied completely on solar energy, and its four butterfly-shaped solar panels were designed to resist dust. But the rover might have succumbed to the elements during the planet’s famous sandstorms.
“From a selfie taken days after Zhurong landed in 2021, we can see its solar panels were very clean back then. However, pictures taken the following January already showed the panels coated with a layer of dust,” the Xichang-based source said.
“It’s not hard to imagine that after a harsh sandstorm season, Zhurong is now probably all covered in the reddish Martian dust.”
To make matters worse, solar radiation during the winter also dropped to a low level, further hampering the rover’s power supply, he said.

Zhurong completed all the tasks it was expected to do, and the Tianwen-1 Mars mission was declared a success by the China National Space Administration in June 2021.
In September, the Tianwen-1 team received one of the world’s top aerospace awards.
The Nasa rovers Opportunity and Perseverance are now working on Mars, both of which are equipped with nuclear batteries designed to run for at least 14 years.”

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