China’s Mars rover Zhu Rong’s ‘selfies’ suggest dust storms on red planet

The thin layer of dust on the surface of China’s Mars rover will not affect its exploration capacity, the country’s space authorities said, as newly released high-resolution photos showed evidence of dust storms on the red planet.

Releasing the latest “selfies” from cameras mounted on the Mars rover “Zhu Rong”, the China National Space Administration said the images showed a thin layer of dust had accumulated on the robotic vehicle’s surface since it was successfully deployed in May last year.

While the dust had affected power generation efficiency of its solar wings to “a certain extent”, it still had enough energy to conduct exploration tasks, CNSA said in a statement on Thursday.

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There was no immediate need to deploy “special designs” on the solar wings to offset the efficiency decline caused by dust coverage, the statement added.

CNSA also said that its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter had seen no obvious sign of dusty weather around the Zhu Rong’s location. The orbiter has monitored dust activities in Mars’ northern hemisphere since late January and sent back pictures in February of dust storms in the area.

Space authorities also released other high resolution pictures taken by Tianwen-1 showing track marks left by the Zhu Rong, and said it travelled a total of 1,784 metres (5,853 feet) in 306 Mars solar days, or sols.

On March 7, the Tianwen-1 photographed the Nasa rover Perseverance while imaging the Jezero crater, noting that the US robot was about 200 metres (656 feet) southeast of the crater, its landing site.

A post on March 11 by researchers studying images from Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter said it had spotted China’s Zhu Rong traversing through the red dirt.

The Zhu Rong had left roughly 1.5km (about a mile) of tracks in its journey south in the past 10 months, the post said.

The data collected by Zhu Rong has enabled Chinese scientists, in collaboration with overseas partners, to better investigate the impact of wind erosion and possible water erosion on the red planet.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience on March 7, a team of researchers from China, Canada and Germany – led by Liang Ding of the Harbin Institute of Technology in northeastern China – gave the first scientific interpretation of image data from the Zhu Rong’s first 60 sols, or roughly 62 Earth days.

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The team found grooves and etchings on rocks around the rover’s landing site, from particles carried by wind, but also flakes which appeared to be evidence of interaction with water or brines.

The rock textures observed thus far “may indicate both the presence of physical weathering – for example, impact sputtering, wind erosion and potential freeze-thaw weathering – and aqueous interactions involving salt and brine,” the paper said.

“These rock and soil targets provide excellent opportunities to peek into the aqueous history and climate evolution of the northern lowlands, and shed light on the habitability evolution of Mars.”

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