BEIJING — As China celebrates the Lunar New Year, a symbol of its national pride – the unmanned lunar rover known as “Yutu,” or Jade Rabbit – sits hobbled on the dark side of the moon, possibly frozen to death.

On Dec. 14, Yutu became China’s first rover to land on the moon. The first lunar landing of any kind since an unmanned Soviet ship retrieved soil samples from the moon in 1976, it was a major triumph for the Chinese.

Then last week came the bad news: The rover had experienced a “mechanical control abnormality” that may have prevented it from going into hibernation before entering the lunar night.

During the lunar night, which lasts roughly 14 Earth days, the moon’s temperature can drop to minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit. If a rover isn’t prepared for that, experts say, it has little chance of recovering. The Chinese will know Feb. 13, when the night ends.

“It looks like the Chinese engineers have lost confidence that they will be able to get it working again,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, an aerospace specialist and professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, R.I.

The rover, she said, was intended to operate through three lunar periods of hibernation. “Now it appears that there were mechanical difficulties before it went into this second hibernation, and if hibernation does not occur normally, the Jade Rabbit could freeze,” Johnson-Freese said in an email.


Scientists say China shouldn’t be ashamed, given that the United States and the Soviet Union suffered numerous failures before consistently executing missions to the moon. Even so, some users of social media in China sounded heartbroken when news of Yutu’s mechanical problems was first reported.

“You’ve done a great job, Yutu,” wrote one microblogger quoted by China’s Xinhua news service.

“Little bunny, we’re praying for you,” wrote another.

If some in China feel a personal connection with the rover, it’s partly because Chinese state media have attempted to humanize it. When Yutu got into trouble, Xinhua released a first-person “diary entry’ from the troubled rover.

“Although I should’ve gone to bed this morning, my masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system,” Xinhua quoted Yutu as saying. “My masters are staying up all night working for a solution. I heard their eyes are looking more like my red rabbit eyes.”

Although Yutu is partly a propaganda tool, researchers within and without China see it as a serious scientific endeavor that, up until its recent troubles, they were monitoring with high expectations.

The lunar rover is equipped with technology that didn’t exist in 1976, including ground-penetrating radar that scientists hoped would reveal what makes up the layers of minerals and gases 100 feet or more beneath the moon’s surface.

Images delivered by Yutu have enthralled space enthusiasts, but it might take some time to see whether the rover, after just a few weeks on the moon, was able to transmit data of long-term scientific value.

Yutu’s followers won’t know whether the mission can be salvaged until the rover emerges from the lunar night and gets the sunlight it needs to re-power its systems.

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