ESA will try a new method to retrieve data from the Chinese Mars rover: listen

Next month, the ESA and China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) will try something on Mars that has never been attempted before in space: send data from a planet-based rover to an orbiter from which it can’t receive messages. In particular, China’s selfie-taking Zhurong rover, which has been on the Red Planet since May, will attempt to shoot data to the ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter.

As the ESA explains, Zhurong cannot actually receive communications from the Express Orbiter due to a radio incompatibility. That means it can’t hear the hail signal sent by the orbiter, which is typically what a rover waits for before starting to send data. Instead, Mars and the ESA will try a new method previously only tested on Earth next month. During five tests, Zhurong will blindly send a signal into space, and the Mars Express will listen for that signal and any data.

“If [Mars Express] detects the magic signal, the radio will lock onto it and record all the data,” writes ESA’s Josh Tapley. “At the end of the communication window, the spacecraft will turn to Earth and send this data through space in the same way it does for other scientific Mars missions. When the data arrives at ESOC, it is forwarded to the Zhurong team for processing and analysis.”

It’s not uncommon for rovers to send data to a foreign orbiter — often seen as a smart backup method — but this test opens the door for communication between incompatible systems. That will come in handy if China has problems with its Tianwen-1 orbiter in the future, or if the US and other countries, in turn, need help.

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