China's Mars Zhurong rover could be dead, but its legacy will live on

China recently confirmed its first Mars rover may be dead due to an accumulation of Martian dust.
Chris Young
China's Mars Zhurong rover
China's Mars Zhurong rover

China News Service/Wikimedia 

China's Mars Zhurong rover has been in hibernation since May last year.

This month, however, Chinese officials broke their silence over the Zhurong mission, stating that the rover could not come out of its planned hibernation in December last year.

China's first Mars rover remains dormant due to an accumulation of Martian dust on the machine's solar panels. It can't draw power from the relatively little sunshine that reaches the Red Planet.

Though China has not confirmed the Zhurong mission has ended, there is a chance it will not be able to reawaken. Still, China's groundbreaking rover has collected a wealth of data, allowing scientists to glean important information about Mars.

New findings alter perception of Mars' recent past

One new study, for example, shows that saline water may have existed on warmer, low-altitude regions of Mars more recently than was previously believed to be possible.

The new study, published in the journal Science Advances, draws from an analysis of Martian dunes collected by the Zhurong rover.

Using data from the rover's imaging camera as well as its chemical measuring instrument, the scientists behind the new paper analyzed cracks and other surface features on the dunes of Mars.

They found that these were likely formed via the melting of small pockets of frozen water as recently as 400,000 years ago, a press release reveals.

The findings suggest that Mars has a more humid climate in the contemporary period than previously believed. They could also help to inform future missions to the Red Planet in search of signs of ancient microbial life.

Analyzing fissures in Martian sand dunes

Scientists broadly agree that Mars likely featured large bodies of water billions of years ago, such as the ancient lake at the Jezero Crater, where NASA's Perseverance rover is currently searching for signs of life.

Less is known, though, about Mars' surface water in more recent millennia. Some indirect geologic evidence suggests that water processes still occur on the planet's surface, but more research is required.

In that context, the team behind the new study poured over Zhurong data to better understand the modern hydroclimatic conditions on Mars.

Specifically, they analyzed the rover's data on salt-rich dunes of the Utopia Planitia region in Mars' northern hemisphere — where Zhurong landed in May 2021. Their findings suggested that future missions could target small depressions, or cracks in Mars' surface, in search of signs of ancient microbes that could tolerate high salinity.

The Mars Zhurong rover's missions may or may not be over. Either way, its scientific legacy will live on for years to come.

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