China's Moon Rover, 'Jade Rabbit,' Malfunctions; Mechanical Problems Could Derail Mission

By Ben Wolford on January 28, 2014 9:05 AM EST

Jade Rabbit
China's Jade Rabbit moon rover suffered mechanical problems last week. (Photo: CNSA)

The Jade Rabbit lunar rover, the jewel of China's budding space program, seems to be in trouble. The state news agency announced this week that it "has experienced a mechanical control abnormality."

Xinhua, citing the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, or SASTIND, did not disclose many details of the malfunction. But the report described the mechanics of its power system at length, suggesting that the problem is related to its two solar panels. Quoting SASTIND, Xinhua said only that the problem had to do with the "complicated lunar surface environment."

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The mechanical problems threaten to derail one of China's most ambitious scientific missions. The country is only the third in history to complete a "soft landing" — a slow touchdown that keeps delicate systems or organisms intact — along with the United States and the former Soviet Union. Engineers with the space agency say they will attempt to repair the rover, and Jade Rabbit's microblogging site on Weibo swears, "I will not give up easily." According to the BBC, this was the first public announcement about anything going wrong, which suggests either China is being more open than usual about its bad news, or the news is really, really bad. Chinese supporters of the rover reacted online with despair. "I want to cry," one Weibo user said.

Jade Rabbit had been cruising across a flat, dusty portion of the lunar landscape at about 600 feet per hour before it broke down, the Associated Press reported. That has led to speculation that debris became lodged in the solar panel equipment, preventing the panels from folding up for the lunar night, which lasts 14 days and subjects the craft to temperatures of minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit. During that time, the rover hibernates. The cold may have damaged the solar panels, some have suggested.

The rover landed on the moon Dec. 14 and was scheduled for a three-month-long mission that included prospecting for natural resources. Xinhua was quick to point out that half of all lunar missions have ended in failure. The report specifically noted an American attempt in 1962 in which the lunar vehicle splashed into the dark side of the moon after equipment malfunctions rendered its scientific instruments useless. And it also noted two Japanese lunar probe launches that failed in the 1990s.

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