China’s lit­tle ‘rab­bit’ on the Moon died, again, but not be­fore in­spir­ing thou­sands with its never-say-die at­ti­tude.

The Witness - Wheels - - FRONT PAGE - AL­WYN VILJOEN

AF­TER China an­nounced its lit­tle sixwheeled lu­nar rover “Yutu” had stopped work­ing on Au­gust 3, this time for real, most of its 377 000 fol­low­ers on Weibo had a mo­ment of si­lence, but oth­ers re­fused to ac­cept its sec­ond “death”.

China’s State Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Science, Tech­nol­ogy, and In­dus­try for Na­tional De­fence, said the so­lar-pow­ered Yutu rover had stopped op­er­at­ing af­ter more than two years of prob­ing the Moon’s sur­face. The lit­tle rover was de­signed to func­tion for only three months.

China is the third na­tion, af­ter the U.S. and Rus­sia, to have over­come the com­plex chal­lenges of land­ing a ve­hi­cle on the Moon and Yutu posts soon ap­peared on Weibo, re­port­edly made by a few de­voted fans with close links to the rover’s en­gi­neers. But Yutu would have re­mained just a hero among a few space nerds, had it not frozen to dig­i­tal death and then strug­gled back to life af­ter the par­tic­u­larly cold lu­nar “night” of Fe­bru­ary 2014. It takes 28,5 Earth day-nights for the Moon to ro­tate the same side to Sun again, mak­ing a Moon day and night as long as a lu­nar month on Earth.

When Yutu’s sen­sors fi­nally man­aged to flicker back on af­ter a few days of sun­light, the lit­tle rover could no longer move its wheels, but it could still send data to Earth, and con­tin­ued to do so for 29 months longer than its mak­ers at Shang­hai Aero­space Sys­tem En­gi­neer­ing In­sti­tute and Bei­jing In­sti­tute of Space­craft Sys­tem En­gi­neer­ing thought their sen­si­tive equip­ment would last.

Bear in mind the high ra­di­a­tion on the Moon re­quires hard­ened elec­tron­ics to avoid elec­tro­mag­netic mal­func­tions, then there’s ex­treme tem­per­a­ture range, up to a bak­ing 130°C dur­ing the month­long lu­nar “day” and down to -170°C dur­ing the lu­nar night.

The sen­si­tive equip­ment that sur­vived the Moon’s harsh con­di­tions ranged from a ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar to six cam­eras to a ro­botic arm, would re­main op­er­a­tional on the Moon. They con­tin­ued to send data, in­clud­ing the first images of the Moon’s sur­pris­ingly com­plex ge­o­log­i­cal lay­ers nine me­tres deep, for al­most two years and en­sured that China’s Moon buggy now holds the record for the long­est op­er­at­ing lu­nar rover, a record that was held ear­lier by Rus­sia’s 1970 lu­nar rover, Lunokhod.

The lit­tle ma­chine’s story sounds like it came from the same muse that in­spired The Lit­tle En­gine That Could, but all boys will agree the video and ra­dio sig­nals from a six-eyed, six-wheeled lit­tle lu­nar rover is so much cooler than a talk­ing steam train with a dopey grin.

The Chi­nese, who named the rover Yutu, for Jade Rab­bit af­ter the pet Chi­nese Moon god­dess in a pub­lic poll, cer­tainly thought so and loved “their” plucky lit­tle ma­chine. The last en­try on the so­cial me­dia site Weibo re­ceived over 100 000 shares.

It read: “Hi! This could be the last greet­ing from me! The Moon says it has pre­pared a long, long dream for me, and I’m won­der­ing what the dream would be like — would I be a Mars ex­plorer, or be sent back to Earth?”

One of the Yutu fol­low­ers posted back: “I don’t know why I am so heart­bro­ken. It’s just a ma­chine, af­ter all.”

At Wheels, we un­der­stand why — some ma­chines do have souls, af­ter all. • al­wyn.viljoen@wit­


China’s Yutu rover leav­ing the lan­der and mak­ing its first foray on the Moon, which proved to be a harsh mis­tress.

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