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Goodnight, Humanity: China's Jade Rabbit Lunar Rover Suffers Crippling Technical Setback

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Jan 27, 2014 11:03 AM EST
The image is a photograph of a screen at Beijing Aerospace Control Center showing lunar rover, taken by the camera on the Chang'e 3 probe.
China's Jade Rabbit lunar rover has suffered a “mechanical control abnormality” that appears to have crippled the spacecraft and brought a premature end to its mission. The image is a photograph of a screen at Beijing Aerospace Control Center showing lunar rover, taken by the camera on the Chang'e 3 probe. (Photo : Reuters )

China's Jade Rabbit lunar rover has suffered a "mechanical control abnormality" that appears to have crippled the spacecraft and brought a premature end to its mission.

The technical malfunction was first reported Saturday (Jan. 25) as the rover was preparing to enter a hibernation mode for the duration of its second lunar night - a two-week period where it would receive no sunlight and therefore no energy to power its solar panels, according to Xinhua News Agency, China's official state media.

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During lunar nights, temperatures on the surface of the Moon can reach minus 180 Celsius (minus 292 F), Xinhua reported, adding that the Moon's "complicated surface environment" led to the crippling complications.

In a separate, first-person account written from the point of view of the rover itself (link in Chinese), Xinhua attempted to humanize the episode while softening the blow that its first lunar mission is likely finished.

Jade Rabbit, known in Chinese as Yutu, or the mythical rabbit that lives on the moon, touched down on the lunar surface Dec. 14 for what was to be a three-month mission that included geological surveys and astronomical observations. China was the third nation to ever successfully land and operate a rover on the Moon, following the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Lutz Richter, a planetary rover specialist at a German aerospace company, speculated that the motors that control Jade Rabbit's solar panels may have failed, which would have caused serious damage to the rover's equipment by the harsh cold, according to the South China Morning Post.

An official with China Society of Space Research's space probe committee told the newspaper that it was still unclear if the rover could be repaired.

"Scientists have little time as it's already night on the moon. If the Jade Rabbit can't continue working it will have a serious negative impact on this project as most research machinery is installed on the rover," Jiao Weixin, the committee's deputy director, said.

A number of translations of the rover's first-person account are available in English. CNN's translation quotes the rover as saying "my masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system. My masters are staying up all night working for a solution."

"Nevertheless, I'm aware that I might not survive this lunar night," the rover continued.

The current lunar night is the second the Jade Rabbit and its companion spacecraft, the Chang'e-3 lander, have met. The Chang'e-3 is reportedly in a successful hibernation mode and is expected to function normally once the lunar night is over.

"[Chang'e] doesn't know about my problems yet," the Jade Rabbit said, according to the CNN translation. "If I can't be fixed, everyone please comfort her."

The Jade Rabbit's final words poetically acknowledged its seemingly imminent doom.

"This is space exploration; the danger comes with its beauty. I am but a tiny dot in the vast picture of mankind's adventure in space.

"The sun has fallen, and the temperature is dropping so quickly... to tell you all a secret, I don't feel that sad. I was just in my own adventure story - and like every hero, I encountered a small problem," the rover said, likely signing off for good.

"Goodnight, Earth," the robot said. "Goodnight, humanity."

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