SHOP PBS

Space + Flight

30
Jan

China’s “Jade Rabbit” Lunar Rover May Not Reawaken

China’s plucky, six-week-old moon rover has fallen into a deep sleep and might not wake up. State media reports indicate the spacecraft, named Yutu—meaning “jade rabbit,” a mythical bunny that lives on the moon—has broken down halfway through its three-month mission.

On December 14, China became just the third nation to softly land a spacecraft on the moon—and the first since 1976—when its Chang’e 3 lander touched down, carrying the rover Yutu inside. Hours later, the 310-pound rover, about the size of an office desk, rolled onto the surface to begin engineering tests and collecting scientific data.

Yutu rover
This image of the 1.5 meter-long Yutu rover was taken by the vehicle it rode in on, the Chang'e 3 lander.

However, the cold, dark lunar “night” lasts for two weeks, and both Chang’e 3 and Yutu must shut down their main systems and tuck in their instruments to survive. The two craft made it through their first lunar slumber, awakening on January 12. But as their second night approached last week, Yutu stopped responding to commands, leaving it unprepared and in danger of never reawakening.

Chinese netizens took to social networks like Sina Weibo to voice their sentiment and support. Xinhua even published a whimsical report written from the rover’s perspective, based on what appear to be messages from an unofficial Weibo account run by fans of the rover. Agence France-Presse published this translated excerpt:

…If this trip is to end prematurely, I’m not afraid. Whether or not they can fix me, I know that my breakdown can provide my masters with a lot of valuable information and experience.

The sun here has fallen, and the temperature is dropping fast. I’ve said a lot today, but I still feel it’s not enough.

I’ll tell everyone a little secret. I’m actually not that sad. I’m just in my own adventure story, and like any protagonist, I encountered a bit of a problem. Goodnight, Earth. Goodnight, humans.

According to Xinhua, mission officials said the malfunction was due to the “complicated lunar surface environment.” One likely culprit: moon dust. Although dust on Earth can be annoying, the Moon’s version is particularly nasty. Jacob Aron, writing for New Scientist:

Moon soil gets ground up by micrometeoroid impacts into a glassy dust… During the Apollo program the sharp-edged dust grains wore through astronaut space suits, scratched up mirrors used for laser ranging experiments and caused moon buggies to overheat.

Making matters worse, lunar dust becomes statically charged when exposed to the sun’s rays, making it cling to everything. It even gave Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt a bout of “lunar dust hay fever.” Learning how to cope with it will be a major sticking point for any future human missions.