China's "Jade Rabbit" Moon Rover Faces Premature End

Image: Imaginechina/AP Photo

UPDATE: China's Jade Rabbit lunar rover has been officially pronounced "dead" by an official Chinese news service on Feb. 12. The rover's earlier mechanical failure may have allowed certain critical systems to become fatally exposed to the cold during the long lunar night, according to New Scientist.

China's first lunar rover faces a "mechanical control abnormality" that could bring its mission on the moon to an early end. Official Chinese news sources have already begun warning of the possibility that the rover, named Jade Rabbit, may never wake up from a scheduled dormant period during the long lunar night.

The rover's lunar touchdown on 14 December 2013 made China just the third country in history to soft-land an object on the moon, following earlier missions launched by the former Soviet Union and the United States during the height of the space race. It also marked the first lunar landing since 1976. But Jade Rabbit's latest malfunction could mean an early end for the historic mission, according to Xinhua.

Few details about the rover's problems were immediately available. China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense merely attributed the problem to a "complicated lunar surface environment" and stated that repairs are ongoing.

Jade Rabbit's troubles emerged shortly before it entered a "sleep" state for its second lunar night on Saturday (25 January). The rover and its accompanying lander—part of China's Chang'e-3 lunar mission—had both already gone dormant for about two weeks one month ago during the first lunar night of the mission. If the rover fails to "wake up" within two weeks, China may decide to scrub the planned three-month mission for the robotic explorer.

Such risks for robotic space missions are nothing new. About half of all lunar missions have failed; by comparison more than half of all missions to Mars have foundered along the way. (See IEEE Spectrum's infographic illustrating past Mars missions.) 

The plight of Jade Rabbit, known as Yutu in Chinese, has captivated netizens on China's most popular social media networks, according to Agence France-Presse. Searches for "Jade Rabbit lunar rover" on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, topped the search list on Monday.

Chinese authorities have also taken an unusually transparent approach to discussing Jade Rabbit's problems compared with past space missions—a fact highlighted in the reporting of Chinese state media. The official news reports also emphasized the Chinese public's fascination with the ongoing mission.

"People not only hailed the authority's openness to the accident, but also expressed concern," Xinhua stated.

Xinhua also took the unusual step of publishing a "first-person account" from the rover that gave the robot a sense of personality and prepared the Chinese public for the possibility of the rover's demise. The account was based on a similar statement put out on an unverified social media account named "Jade Rabbit Lunar Rover," according to Agence France-Presse.

"Some parts of my body won't listen to their commands," the first-person account says. "Now my masters are hard at work thinking of ways to fix me... Even so, I know that it's possible I won't be able to endure this night."

Even if Jade Rabbit fails to wake up, it represents just one element of China's ambitious space program. Chinese taikonauts have already stayed aboard the nation's first orbital space lab, Tiangong-1. China also plans to launch Tiangong-2 in 2015, followed by the construction of a full-scale space station scheduled for completion in 2020. A report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences also laid out the possibility of manned missions to the moon.

The Jade Rabbit mission has also provided a solid dose of national pride that is helping to fuel the Chinese public's interest in space exploration. China's heightened focus on space exploration may have contributed in part to the popularity of "Gravity," Hollywood's latest space disaster film, which raked in more than US $70 million at the Chinese box office last year.

Image: Imaginechina/AP Photo

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