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China’s Mars Rover Fails to Wake Up After Choking on Red Planet’s Dust

China’s first Mars rover hasn’t woken up from a scheduled months-long hibernation on the surface of the Red Planet, a Chinese scientist confirmed Tuesday.

The solar-powered Zhurong, named after an ancient Chinese god of fire, landed in May 2021, making China only the second nation after the US to succeed in landing such a probe on the Red Plant. The 240 kilogram (530 pound) vehicle is one of the most significant achievements in China’s effort to challenge the US’s dominance in space exploration.

“Based on our analysis, the most likely possibility is that an unpredictable accumulation of dust from Mars led to a decrease in its ability to produce electricity, such that it’s insufficient for it to wake up,” Zhang Rongqiao, the chief designer of the Mars exploration program, said in an interview aired by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

China had planned on reactivating the rover in December after keeping it in a dormant state during the Martian winter.

Chinese scientists had anticipated the rover’s failure to wake up, said Zhang, adding that the rover had “significantly exceeded” initial expectations by exploring the planet for 358 Martian days, or about a year on Earth, and covering 1,921 meters (1.2 miles). Its mission was originally planed for three Martian months.

If the buildup of dust on Zhurong were to exceed more than 40% of the amount engineers had planned for, the rover would be inactive “forever,” since even an increase in solar intensity would not help revive it, Zhang said. He didn’t confirm the current level of dust accumulation.

NASA has landed several exploration vehicles on Mars including Curiosity, which has been operational for over 10 years. NASA’s most recent rover, Perseverance, helped to launch a helicopter in 2021, making it the first time flight was conducted on another planet.

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