China's lunar rover is not ready to say "good night moon" just yet. The rover, called Jade Rabbit, has awakened from the long lunar night—but only after Chinese state media reported of its death. This gives Chinese mission controllers another chance to figure out the rover malfunction that first led to fears of its untimely demise.
Jade Rabbit's troubles began shortly before it went intentionally dormant for its second lunar night on 25 January. At the time, China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said that the rover faced a "mechanical control abnormality" because of a "complicated lunar surface environment," but provided no other details. The news triggered an outpouring of sympathy from Chinese citizens via social media networks. Chinese state media practiced transparency, taking the steps of reporting on the problem and also preparing citizens for the possibility of the lunar rover's early demise.
The rover's condition left Chinese engineers uncertain about whether the robot's critical systems would endure the two-week, super-cold lunar night, when no sunlight would reach the rover's solar panel. And an official Chinese news service initially seemed to confirm the worst as it reported on Jade Rabbit's failure to awaken this week.
But today, China National Radio quoted Pei Zhaoyu, spokesperson for China's lunar probe program, as saying the rover had returned to "wakefulness." But Pei acknowledged that the rover's earlier malfunction remained, according to South China Morning Post.
"Jade Rabbit went to sleep in an abnormal state. We were worried it wouldn’t be able to endure the lunar night's extremely low temperatures, but it's come back to life! As long as it's alive, there’s the possibility it can be saved.”
The rover's landing on 14 December 2013—part of China's Chang'e-3 lunar mission—made China the third country in history to soft-land an object on the moon. The event also marked the first lunar landing of any kind, manned or unmanned, since 1976. If Chinese engineers can troubleshoot Jade Rabbit's problems, the robotic explorer could potentially finish its planned three-month mission.
Jade Rabbit's apparent survival prompted the message, "Hi, anybody there?" from an unofficial "Yutu Lunar Rover" account on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter. Xinhua reports that the message rallied fans and followers, prompting 60 000 reposts and 40 000 comments within two hours. Some social media users joked about the rover waking up with a craving for the traditional sweet dumplings associated with China's Lantern Festival that falls on Friday (14 February) this year.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.