'Jade Rabbit' Officially Dead, Chinese State Media Reports Of Its Celebrated Moon Rover

By Ben Wolford on February 13, 2014 9:42 AM EST

China's moon rover, Jade Rabbit, is officially kaput. (Photo: CNSA)

China's moon rover, Jade Rabbit, is officially kaput. (Photo: CNSA)

UPDATE: The Chinese space agency says Jade Rabbit is back from the dead, according to news reports citing state media. "Jade Rabbit has fully resurrected and is able to receive signals, but still suffers a mechanical control abnormality," lunar program spokesman Pei Zhaoyu told Xinhua, according to CNN. "The rover entered hibernation while in an abnormal state. We were worried it wouldn't be able to make it through the extreme cold of the lunar night. But it came back alive. The rover stands a chance of being saved as it is still alive."

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This follows a long string of confusing or mysterious announcements from state-run media. The lunar rover has its own Weibo account, on which it wrote "goodnight, humanity," an ominous salutation, last month when it first suffered technical glitches. And officials still haven't fully explained what's wrong with Jade Rabbit. It seems as though it's able to send and receive signals but can't move.

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It's the end of the line for a high-tech go-cart that traveled 239,000 miles and made history for China's emerging space program. Scientists could not revive Jade Rabbit, the celebrated Chinese lunar rover, from a more than two-week paralysis on the dark side of the moon, Chinese state media reported Wednesday.

The trouble began near the end of last month, when operators in Beijing couldn't rouse the rover from its nocturnal hybernation. During the lunar night, which lasts 14 days, the Jade Rabbit (of Yutu in Chinese) was supposed to fold its solar panels and sensitive instruments inside a protective casing, shielding it from temperatures that approach -300 degrees Fahrenheit. China's state-run news agencies have been extremely vague about the malfunction, but some have speculated that the panels failed to collapse and the pieces froze.

The official announcement of Jade Rabbit's demise came in the form of a two-sentence post on China News Service. "China's first lunar rover, Yutu, could not be restored to full function on Monday as expected, and netizens mourned it on Weibo, China's Twitter-like service," it said. It was a perfunctory obituary for a pioneering mission that gained widespread popularity. In some ways it became a national symbol; Miniature models of the rover sold like hotcakes.

"Yutu experienced mechanical problems on Jan. 25 and has been unable to function since then," Xinhua wrote last month in an equivocating report. It described the problem simply as a "mechanical control abnormality" related to the "complicated lunar surface environment."

The government has high ambitions for space and intends to send Chinese astronauts to the moon someday. It's unclear whether Jade Rabbit's death will set them back. But Xinhua was quick to note that humans have failed at half of all 130 lunar probe missions they've attempted. "In April 1962, the U.S. lunar probe Ranger 4 crashed into the dark side of the Moon after equipment failure prevented it from returning pictures and scientific data," they said. Agence France Press writes that China has eyes on the moon's mineral resources, including possibly uranium and titanium, but insists its interest in space remains "for peaceful purposes."

Later in the afternoon Wednesday, a blog at Planetary.org reported amateur radio astronomers had picked up a signal from Jade Rabbit, and they posted a picture of the signal, which they described as "pretty good" on Twitter. If that's true, it might mean that the machine's radios still work but that it's engine is toast. Ultimately, many good things have come out of the mission. For one, it was the first soft landing of lunar space craft in years and the first by a nation other than the United States or former Soviet Union. Also, Jade Rabbit managed to beam back some pretty cool photos.

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