China's Mars rover was just forced to enter safe mode
Hold on tight.
China's Mars rover, the Zhurong, was put into safe mode in light of a Martian dust storm, according to a state-run media report.
Crucially, this could put China's crown jewel of Martian exploration out of action until the end of 2022.
China's Zhurong rover enters safe mode
China's Mars rover was initially only supposed to last for 90 days, but since that deadline has come and gone, it's continued its mission to explore and analyze the surface of the Red Planet. "The latest images taken by cameras onboard China's Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter show a dust storm passing over the patrol area of Zhurong," read the Chinese state-funded media report.
Placing recent photos next to ones from months ago, combined with an analysis of power data of the rover's solar wings, scientists concluded that Zhurong was weathering a severe dust storm on Mars.
China's Zhurong initially landed on Mars in May 2021, and it's sent video and audio recordings of Utopia Planitia, a colossal lava plain stretching across the planet's surface, and more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km) from NASA's rover, Perseverance. But Utopia Planitia has entered winter, when the environment is unforgiving — even when there's no dust storm in sight.
China's National Space Administration (CNSA) said local daytime temperatures can sink to less than -4 degrees Fahrenheit, with nighttime temperatures plummeting to an unconscionable -148 degrees Fahrenheit. Critically, CNSA added that its Zhurong rover probably won't go fully active again until December, when Martian spring hits.
Mars knocks robots and rovers out all the time
Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time. In 2018, a major dust storm brought NASA's Opportunity rover mission to a close. And in January this year, NASA's InSight lander was also put into safe mode by a dust storm. But while it didn't die, the thick coat of dust on its solar panels has put InSight very close to its end — which will likely come before the year is out.
But Zhurong won't see the same fate, since its safe mode is more like a precautionary step, instead of a last resort for survival. Until it comes back to life, the Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter will go on, analyzing the Red Planet's atmosphere and seeking signs of clear Martian air.
There are other dangers on Mars for landers and rovers besides dust storms. In the fall of 2021, all rovers on the Red Planet were forced into safe mode, with all research shut down as the sun passed between the Earth and Mars. This was an event called a "Mars solar conjunction" where the sun itself blocks all direct communications — sine there's no line-of-sight for radio transmissions between Earth and Mars.
It only lasted from October 2 to 16, but it raised interesting questions about how probes — or future astronauts — might stay in touch with mission control on Earth while exploring Mars, the outer planets, and even farther beyond.
This was developing news about China's Mars rover entering safe mode and was regularly updated as new information became available.