China's Yutu Lunar Rover Experiences Mechanical Abnormality – UPDATE 2

China's Yutu Lunar Rover Experiences Mechanical Abnormality – UPDATE 2

UPDATE 2, January 26, 2014, 2:55 pm EST:  CCTV has a story today about Netizens extending “blessings” to Yutu and many of them “fear for the troubled rover’s destiny.”  That is far short of any official indication of whether Yutu’s problems can be solved, but does continue to suggest that the problem is serious.  This article is updated with a bit more from that CCTV story and a link to it.

UPDATE, January 25, 2014, 10:20 pm ESTChina’s English language TV station, CCTV, ran a story this evening suggesting Yutu may be in serious trouble.   This article is updated accordingly.

China’s official Xinhua news agency reported on January 25 Eastern Standard Time (EST) that the Yutu lunar rover experienced a “mechanical control abnormality” just before it entered its second hibernation period for the lunar night.

Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) is part of China’s Chang’e-3 mission.   Chang’e is China’s mythological goddess of the Moon and Yutu is her companion pet rabbit.

Chang’e-3 and Yutu landed on the Moon on December 14, 2013 EST.  It is China’s first probe to soft land on the Moon.  Yutu separated from Chang’e-3 the next day and began its trek across the lunar surface.  Yutu is equipped with solar arrays for power, so must hibernate during the 14-day lunar “nights” when there is no sunlight.

Xinhua reported late in the evening of January 24 EST that Yutu experienced an abnormality.  A story published January 25 EST added that it is a “mechanical control abnormality” due to the “complicated lunar surface environment” and “scientists are organizing repairs.”  “The abnormality emerged before the rover entered its second dormancy at dawn on Saturday as the lunar night fell,” Xinhua reported, quoting China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND).

Official Chinese sources have not stated what the problem is, but a participant in a conversation on The Planetary Society’s “Unmanned” site said on January 25 that the problem “is with the solar arrays failing to tuck back into the rover body for thermal protection during the lunar night.”  The source of that information is not cited, but the participant is identified as Cosmic Penguin, who is located in Hong Kong according to information on that site.

Also on January 25 EST, China’s official English-language TV station, CCTV, ran a story suggesting that the problem may be quite serious.   Citing Yutu’s official Chinese Twitter account, CCTV ran the following quote:  “It’s been a pleasure for me to come to the moon and share my experiences with everyone.  Very soon the temperature on the moon will drop below minus 180 degrees Centigrade.  I’m not sure if things can be fixed in time.  So I’d like to wish all of you a happy Spring Festival in advance!”

Twitter accounts for robotic spacecraft have become common in recent years since Veronica McGregor at the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) began the practice with the Mars Phoenix lander.   Humans associated with a space mission post messages on Twitter using the first person as though the spacecraft itself is talking.  Whoever is posting messages on Yutu’s Twitter account presumably is officially connected with the mission.

On January 26, CCTV ran a follow-up story about how “tens of thousands of Chinese Netizens” are posting messages on China’s Twitter service extending “blessings” to Yutu.  Some are messages of encouragement that Yutu get better, others console the robotic rover that it did its best.  CCTV says that many of those posting messages “fear for the troubled rover’s destiny.”   That is far from an official statement about the likelihood that Yutu’s problems can be solved, but absent official information, the fact that the government’s English-language TV broadcaster is highlighting these posts adds to the sense that the problem is serious.   The closest CCTV comes to quoting anyone in an official capacity is a statement attributed to Yang Yuguang, “a researcher” from China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp. who says “There is no smooth way ahead.  Whether or not we can overcome this difficult situation, it’s a big lesson for our lunar exploration research.”

The stationary Chang’e-3 lander is equipped with an optical telescope and extreme ultraviolet camera.  The Yutu rover has a radar, panoramic camera, particle X-ray instrument and infrared sensor.  Emily Lakdawalla, who blogs for The Planetary Society, posted on January 21 that the panoramic camera no longer is functional.

China’s Yutu rover on the Moon.  Source, tweet from Xinhua News @XHNews December 22, 2013.

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