China’s little ‘rabbit’ on the Moon died, again, but not before inspiring thousands with its never-say-die attitude.
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. • firstname.lastname@example.org
China’s Yutu rover leaving the lander and making its first foray on the Moon, which proved to be a harsh mistress.