At Mars, China's Tianwen 1 orbiter and Zhurong rover are back in action after a radio blackout

Zhurong took this panoramic image and released it after the announcement of the close of the solar conjunction period. Image credit: CNSA/PEC
After a blackout that resulted from the sun interfering in radio signals sent from Earth, China's Tianwen 1 orbiter (China) and Zhurong (China) are now active at Mars.

Zhurong and Tianwen 1 had been in standby mode since mid-September. Communications with Mars and Earth orbiting on opposite sides of the sun, and all three bodies nearly perfectly aligned, were effectively blocked due to interference from the charged particles from our star.

China Lunar Exploration (Chinese), announced Thursday (Oct. 21st) that the orbiter/rover had reestablished communications, and resumed science exploration and science activities.

Related: China's Mars Rover Zhurong just took an incredible self-portrait of the Red Planet (photos).

Zhurong and Tianwen 1 are both active earlier than initially thought. The spacecraft were expected not to be accessible for communications until October 31st. This estimate is likely conservative, as it was the first time China operated a Mars spacecraft during a once in 26-month solar conjunction. (Tianwen 1 was China's first mission to the Red Planet.

Zhurong had traveled 3,878 feet (1.182 meters) in total before going on standby to observe the solar conjunction. Sun Zezhou, Tianwen 1, chief designer at the China Academy of Space Technology, (CAST), stated earlier this month that Zhurong had covered 3,878 feet (1.182 metres) of distance. Zhurong, which had been in orbit since February when Tianwen 1 reached Mars, landed in Utopia Planitia and rolled onto its surface on May 14.

Zhurong also provided a panoramic view of the surroundings before it went on standby and showed the area it would be exploring.

In the next few weeks, things will change for Zhurong and Tianwen 1. The orbiter's role as a relay satellite for Zhurong will be ended in early November. This is because Zhurong has completed its primary mission. Tianwen 1 used to pass over Zhurong's location once per Martian day (or sol) to relay data to Earth. But it will now shift its orbit in order to begin global mapping of the Martian subsurface and its seven science instruments.

Tianwen 1 will continue to provide relay services but a European satellite could be used to transmit Zhurong’s data over hundreds of millions miles of space. The European Space Agency (ESA) Mars Express launched in 2003 and will perform five tests with Zhurong.

Space.com's James Godfrey, Mars Express operations manager at ESA, stated that Mars Express will attempt Zhurong data and then relay the information to Earth. Mars Express will not be able send commands to Zhurong because Mars Express's message-sending capabilities can only be used through channels Mars Express cannot monitor.

Zhurong will continue its southward journey from the landing platform, which safely brought it to the surface.

A new paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, focusing on geomorphologic exploration targets, was published by Ye Binlong (University of Hong Kong) and Qian Yuqi (China University of Geosciences). These targets were identified by Zhurong for analysis. These include mud volcanoes, and features that could have been created by subsurface water and/or ice.

The ground-penetrating radar of Zhurong is said to offer "fundamentally different perspectives" on possible subsurface Martian water, according to the authors. Underground water would have important implications for human life and would be an excellent resource for future crewed Mars exploration. NASA's Perseverance Rover is looking for water resources under Mars using its ground-penetrating radar.

Preprint science papers about Zhurong's progress thus far reveal that the rover has covered coverings of approximately 33 feet (10 meters) and upto 66 feet (20 meters) per sol, depending on terrain and science task. They also detail the route planning aspects and autonomous drive aspects Zhurong's operations.

The paper also shows some features of the landing area, as well as rocks that show evidence of weathering. Zhurong will continue to return new images, discoveries and science data as it moves south.

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