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Silent Serenade: China’s Mars Missions Disappear From Communication

Tianwen-1 Mars mission faces challenges as orbiter and rover encounter difficulties

Tianwen 1
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China’s first interplanetary mission, which consists of the Zhurong rover and the Tianwen-1 orbiter, is facing some major challenges. While the Zhurong rover has been in hibernation on the Martian surface since May 2021, there has been no announcement regarding contact with the rover. It was expected to resume activity in December, but teams on Earth have yet to receive a signal from it. It is possible that the rover may have been impacted by sand storms in the area, which could reduce energy generation. The Zhurong rover has active means of removing dust from its solar arrays, but it would be unable to perform this operation while hibernating.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter, which was tasked with assessing the area and attempting to contact the Zhurong rover, is also experiencing difficulties. Teams need help receiving data from the orbiter, and radio amateurs have noted issues with attempts for ground stations to lock onto it. It is unclear if the orbiter has conducted aerobraking tests scheduled for late last year as part of the preparation for a Mars sample return mission. Chinese space authorities have yet to comment on the situation.

The Zhurong rover had a primary mission lifetime of three Earth months, but it ended up operating for just over one Earth year in the Utopia Planitia region of Mars. During its extended mission, it travelled at least 1,921 meters south from its landing site and sought out geomorphologic targets such as mud volcanoes. It returned detailed insights into the local layered subsurface with its ground-penetrating radar and discovered evidence of relatively recent aqueous activity in the area.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter was initially used to assess pre-selected landing zones for the Zhurong rover. It then served as a communications relay for the rover during its primary mission phase, before focusing more on its own science objectives. It completed a mapping of the Martian surface with a medium-resolution camera by June 2022 and also completed its assigned goals for its six science payloads.

China launched the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars in July 2020, with the combination of the Tianwen-1 orbiter and Zhurong rover entering Mars orbit in February 2021. Both spacecraft entered a standby mode in 2021 when Earth and Mars were orbiting at opposite sides of the sun, causing a communications blackout. China plans to launch the Tianwen-2 joint near-Earth asteroid sample return and main belt comet rendezvous mission around 2025.

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