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China’s Zhurong Mars rover is likely dead from lack of sunlight

It had a great run, lasting four times longer than planned!

By Cassidy Ward
Zhurong Mars rover

Sleeping Beauty is one of those stories that just sort of exists, having emerged through some poorly understood narrative magic without the benefit of a dedicated author. Its origins date back to at least the 16th century, but even those early tales are unrecognizable as the story we know today. Over the last several centuries, there has been a version of the story for every generation, from the Grimm brothers’ classic to Casper Van Dien’s 2014 directorial debut (streaming now on Peacock).

You might be familiar with Van Dien from his performance as Rico in Starship Troopers or Amok in Alita: Battle Angel. Revisiting Sleeping Beauty gave him a chance to operate in front of and behind the camera, spinning a version of the classic fairy tale complete with an array of horrifying monsters, from undead zombies to moat-patrolling dinosaurs. Wild! The story works because it is universal, surviving and thriving across time and space, impacting people and robots alike. The story’s latest victim is the Zhurong Mars rover – operated by the China National Space Agency – and its true love is nowhere in sight.

RELATED: China makes history as second nation to ever land a rover on Mars surface

Like many spacecraft, Zhurong relies on solar radiation to charge its batteries and keep it rolling across the rust-colored alien landscape. In May 2022, the rover entered into a planned hibernation period to wait out the Martian winter and corresponding decrease in sunlight. The rover was meant to sleep through the dark months and reawaken when the Sun returned to kiss its face. So far, it hasn’t woken up.

Zhurong rover on Mars

Zhurong landed on Mars in May 2021 and traveled nearly two kilometers over the next 358 days. Already, that was roughly four times the planned mission duration of just three months. Of course, scientists are always happy when their robots stick around longer than they’d planned. That was the hope for Zhurong on the other side of its hibernation, but it wasn’t meant to be. Images of the area, taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) between September 2022 and February 2023, confirm that the rover has not moved.

"We have not had any communication from the rover since it entered hibernation. We are monitoring it every day and believe it has not woken up because the sunlight has not yet reached the minimum level for power generation,” said Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of China’s Mars exploration program, via Reuters.

What that actually means, and whether Zhurong will wake up, remains to be seen. It’s possible that a layer of dust built up over the rover while it slept, wrapping it in a blanket of Martian regolith and shielding it from the Sun. If that’s what happened, Zhurong may never wake up, having died of suffocation, buried alive while it slept.

Alternatively, it remains possible that Mars is experiencing a particularly hard winter and it’s taking Zhurong a little longer to knock the ice off than scientists expected. In order to wake up, the rover needs to warm to at least 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 Celsius).

Maybe Zhurong is dead, or maybe it’s just sleeping, waiting for the right warm kiss to wake it up.

Casper Van Dien’s Sleeping Beauty is streaming now on Peacock!