Something may have gone very wrong for China's first-ever Mars mission.
China launched Tianwen 1 in July 2020 and the mission's rover, named Zhurong, touched down on the Red Planet in May 2021. The duo explored Mars smoothly until May 2022, when Zhurong was put into hibernation, hunkering down for the harsh winter.
But the rover may not have exited hibernation as expected, according to reports from Space News (opens in new tab), which cite reporting from the South China Morning Post (opens in new tab) (SCMP), an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong, that Zhurong was expected to wake up in December and hasn't called home yet. And simultaneously, the Tianwen 1 Mars orbiter appears to be experiencing a communications glitch.
Zhurong entered hibernation in May 2022 to help it ride out the low temperatures, dust storms and sand storms common in Martian winter. The rover features a special anti-dust coating on its solar panels, which it angled before hibernating in anticipation of the storms and its subsequent emergence from hibernation.
Nevertheless, it appears something has gone wrong. Unnamed sources told the SCMP that teams on Earth have yet to receive signal from the rover following hibernation. It's unknown what the issue might be, but an unnamed source told SCMP that "most likely the sandstorms have seriously weakened Zhurong's capacity to use its solar panels to generate power."
There's more bad news for China's space agency: It appears that the Tianwen 1 orbiter has also gone quiet. The orbiter initially scouted for landing locations for Zhurong before serving as a communications relay for the rover. Since then, the Tianwen 1 orbiter has been carrying out its own science program, including surveying and mapping the Red Planet.
"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," South China Morning Post wrote. Amateur radio operators have even observed that Tianwen 1 ground stations appear to have stopped attempting to make contact (opens in new tab) with the orbiter.
China's space agency has yet to comment on the issues with Zhurong and Tianwen 1.