January 27, 2014 – China’s lunar rover, Yutu or Jade Rabbit, which I wrote about on December 14th of last year, has hit its first glitch after a little over a month on the lunar surface. The six-wheeled robot, companion to its stationary lander, Chang’e 3, is experiencing what the Chinese space agency calls a mechanical problem.
The rover gets its power from photovoltaics panels and relies on a radioactive power source to keep instrumentation warm during each two-week lunar night. But something has gone wrong.
Yutu is designed to position itself so that one of its solar panels is angled to capture the rising Sun. The other solar panel is designed to fold over the rest of instrumentation to insulate it from the lunar cold. During the first lunar night all things were optimal but in the second the mechanism didn’t work as planned and it appears Yutu may not survive this second lunar night.
The 140 kilogram (300 pound) rover was exploring Sinus Iridum, the Plain of Rainbows when the failure occurred. Lunar dust may have been kicked up the wheels interfering with the folding mechanism. Normally the instrumentation on board extends above the rover on a mast and then descends at the onset of lunar night. And although that part of the mechanism worked the solar panel that then folds over it failed.
What this shows is that the environment in which rovers like Yutu, Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity operate in is fraught with peril. They can fail at any time. For Spirit on Mars it was about getting stuck in sand and then losing the ability for it to keep its solar panels optimally positioned for power generation. For Yutu it appears to be a design failure and the cold of a lunar night.
The Chinese space agency isn’t holding much hope. Chang’e 3, the stationary lander, however, continues to operate as planned.