China’s Lunar Rover Comes Back to Life

Photo of the Jade Rabbit rover taken by the Chang’e-3 lander after it rolled onto the lunar surface for the first time on December 15, 2013. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration

Reports of the demise of China’s Jade Rabbit (Yutu in Chinese) lunar rover appear greatly exaggerated. The rover looks to have survived a long, cold night on the moon. 

According to state-run media Xinhau, Chinese mission engineers managed to restore communication with the moon buggy late this week, after much angst over a technical malfunction that officials dubbed a “mechanical control abnormality.” The problems started in late January just as the rover entered a hibernation state during the two-week-long lunar nights.

The surprising rover resurrection comes only a day after the troubled explorer was declared dead by China.

Some observers had speculated that the ever-present lunar dust may have clogged the rover’s mechanics. Specifically, fears were that the six-wheeled solar-powered geologist would not survive the extreme low temperatures that can dip down to a frigid -180ºC (-292ºF).

However, despite everyone writing the hapless rover off,  it now appears to have awakened from its slumber.

“Yutu has come back to life!” said Pei Zhaoyu, the spokesperson for China’s lunar program, in a February 13 Xinhau report. “The rover stands a chance of being saved now that it is still alive,” he added.

Engineers are still working on figuring out exactly what went wrong, and although they confirmed that Yutu has phoned home, it remains to be seen exactly how healthy the rover remains and how successful repairs will be.

In its time on the moon, the mission has conducted some research, surveying lunar soil and rocks around the landing area. It has also snapped images of Earth’s electrical “plasmasphere” using the lander’s ultraviolet camera.

This robotic lunar mission not only represents a source of pride for China, it is also a key step in its military-run space program to land astronauts on the moon.

China became only the third nation in history to successfully make a soft landing on another world when the Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover touched down on the moon on December 14.

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Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.