Dusty Zhurong rover.
Credit: CNSA


China’s Zhurong rover has worked on the surface of Mars for more than 300 days.

The Tianwen-1 mission is the country’s first interplanetary outing, probe sending back a large amount of data, and is ready for more international cooperation on Mars, says a chief designer of the probe.

In May 2021, China’s Mars probe Tianwen-1 successfully landed on the Red Planet, then dispatched the Zhurong robot explorer.

Lander and Zhurong Mars rover.
Credit: CNSA/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Communication test

After its landing, the Mars rover successfully completed an in-orbit relay communication test with the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Mars Express, laying a foundation for further international cooperation.

Zhurong sent test data to Mars Express over a distance of approximately 4,000 kilometers. The communication lasted 10 minutes.

Peng Song, deputy director designer of the Tianwen-1 probe.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Mars rover Zhurong sent test data to Mars Express. Mars Express received the data and forwarded it to the European Space Operations Center (ESOC). The ESOC then forwarded the data to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. “The data relay communication link verification test proved that the Tianwen-1 team and the Mars Express team are capable of conducting international cooperation in this field,” Peng Song, deputy director designer of the Tianwen-1 probe, told China Central Television (CCTV).

Credit: CNSA

Data analysis results showed that the relay communication equipment interfaces of Zhurong and ESA’s Mars Express matched and conformed to international standards, and the contents of the transmitted data were complete and correct.

China’s Zhurong rover wheels to the south, clearly shown in this June 11 image acquired by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Travel route

Zhurong has driven more than 6,233 feet (1,900 meters) southward from its landing point on Mars and will keep its effective momentum to travel further south to obtain scientific data.

“We have some high-interest objects in the south. Zhurong finished exploring a sand dune and some rocks in the vicinity. Its travel route is generally based on the scientific purposes,” Peng said.

Meanwhile, the Tianwen-1 mission orbiter continues to orbit around the red planet conducting tests of its own, which is tasked with taking high resolution pictures of typical landforms on Mars, including craters, volcanoes, canyons and dry river beds.

Credit: China National Space Administration (CNSA)/China Media Group(CMG)/China Central Television (CCTV)

Winter season

Additionally, the Zhurong rover is prepared for tiding over dusty weather in the upcoming winter season on the Red Planet.

“So far everything looks safe and sound. But the dust could affect the power generation of the solar wings, because the dust is bound to reduce the efficiency of the power generation, which could lead to a shortage of energy,” said Peng.

Tailored measures

To tackle the frequent sandstorms in winter, the designers have designed four tailored measures for Zhurong.

“The first is that the battery pieces installed in the solar wings are made of a special material called superhydrophobic material, which, like a lotus leaf can let the water drops falling on it slip, makes it easier for the dust to be blown off,” said Peng.

Complex terrain of rocks, impact craters and sand dunes.
Credit: CNSA

Zhurong’s solar wings also have directional tracking of the sun. Although the sun is lower in winter, the rover’s wings, like those of a sunflower, will shift as the sun rises to maximize solar energy absorption.

The third measure is that the rover can conserve energy and reduce energy consumption by changing their working patterns in windy and sandy weather.

If all the first three measures fail to solve the energy problem, the rover will go into dormancy until the dust clears, when it will wake up automatically and resume work, according to Peng.

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