China’s Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter and rover appear to be in trouble – SpaceNews

HELSINKI — The two spacecraft making up China’s first interplanetary mission are both suffering from problems, with the rover potentially lost on the surface after winter hibernation.

The Zhurong Mars rover has been hibernating on the Martian surface since May 18 last year and is expected to resume activity in December, around the time of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere.

However, no announcement of making contact with the rover was made. South China Morning Post reported January 7, citing sources who do not wish to be named, that teams on Earth have yet to receive a signal from Zhurong.

The Zhurong rover landed in the Utopia Planitia region of Mars in May 2021 but Between a period of hibernation to get through winter, when temperatures and solar radiation levels are too low for the solar-powered rover to operate.

The rover was expected to resume autonomous operations once it can generate enough power from solar power and when temperatures reach around minus 15 degrees Celsius.

Zhurong went into hibernation when local temperatures were around minus 20 degrees, according to to the Chinese lunar exploration program, after the autumnal equinox at the end of February. Conditions should already be more favorable after the spring equinox on December 26. Mars has an axial tilt of about 25 degrees, which means it has similar seasonal variations to Earth during its orbit around the sun.

Although there has been no official comment so far, the rover may have been hit by sandstorms in the area, which could reduce power output levels. The Tianwen-1 orbiter noted storms around the landing zone in March and April 2021.

Zhurong has active means to dust off its four butterfly-wing solar panels, but would be unable to perform this operation in hibernation. Berries also have a dust-proof coating and can tilt to maximize light gathering.

Zhurong had a primary mission life of three Earth months, but operated for just over one Earth year at Utopia Planitia, traveling at least 1,921 meters south of its landing site. He was looking for geomorphological targets such as mud volcanoes during its extended mission.

The rover returned detailed information about the local layered basement with its ground-penetrating radar and discovered evidence of relatively recent water activity in the region. The rover’s landing was also used by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson as a warning to Congress about China’s competitive threat to US leadership in human spaceflight.

Meanwhile, the Tianwen-1 orbiter was tasked with assessing the area and attempting to contact the rover. Teams are also struggling to receive data from the orbiter, however, according to SCMP.

Radio amateurs have also noted problems with attempts to lock ground stations onto the orbiter.

Tianwen-1 was to drive aerobraking tests at the end of last year as part of the preparation of a Mars Sample Return Mission potential launch later this decade. It is not known if the tests were carried out and potentially had an impact on the orbiter. Chinese space authorities have yet to comment on the situation.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter was initially used to assess pre-selected landing zones for Zhurong. It was then used primarily as a communications relay for Zhurong during the rover’s main mission phase, before focusing more on its own science goals.

It has completed mapping the Martian surface with a medium-resolution camera by June 2022, as well as completed its assigned targets for its six science payloads.

China launched its 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.

Tianwen-1 and Zhurong had entered standby mode in 2021 when Earth and Mars were orbiting opposite sides of the sun, causing communication Blackout.

China plans to launch the joint Tianwen-2 mission to return samples of near-Earth asteroids and rendezvous of main-belt comets around 2025.

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