On December 15 China’s Yutu rover landed on the lunar surface to begin a three-month-long mission. For the last two weeks scientists with the Chinese space program have been waiting with bated breath to see if their lunar rover Yutu (translates to Jade Rabbit) would survive the lunar night. A mechanical malfunction prevented the rover from entering hibernation and scientists fear that the rover may have frozen to death. However, a newly released audio transmission shows that all is not lost yet.
The lunar night lasts about 14 Earth days. During this time, the rover would not have any sunlight to power its solar panels and needs to be powered down to conserve stored power. Not only that, but the lack of sunlight also brings dangerously low temperatures. The rover needed to fold itself up to protect its delicate electronic components from freezing and sustaining irreparable damage. Unfortunately, state officials announced that while Yutu was scheduled to enter hibernation on January 25, unknown mechanical problems occurred and the rover was left open and exposed.
Scientists worked diligently to try to repair the rover remotely, but became acutely aware that the rover was likely that is likely that the freezing temperatures damaged the rover’s electronics too severely to be recovered. Currently, the only explanation offered for the malfunction has been that it is due to “complicated lunar surface environment” but did not specify if dust was to blame.
There have been conflicting reports - some news outlets have stated that Yutu has been confirmed as lost, which does not appear to be true. To the contrary, a short announcement from the state-run news outlet has said that since the sun has come out in the third lunar day of its mission, Yutu has shown small signs of life through radio transmissions. While this does not indicate how Yutu is doing overall or how the mission will proceed, there is hope that it could recover function as it continues to warm up.
Even if Yutu’s scientific mission is cut short, it was anything but a failure. China has the third space program (following the United States and the Soviet Union) to have made a soft landing on the moon. For the time that Yutu was fully functional, it was able to use its mechanical arm and make observations about the lunar surface. It was an incredible first step in space exploration.
Chang’e-3, the lander that brought Yutu to the moon, went into hibernation mode without incident. It does have a camera on board and will continue to take pictures to send back to Earth.