The South China Morning Post reported on Friday that Chinese engineers believe that they have found the fault that has prevented the Yutu lunar rover from operating since shortly after it landed on the moon as part of the Chang’e 3 expedition. The fault appears to be in a blacked circuit that has prevented its driving mechanism from operating. As a result the Yutu has been parked on the lunar surface unable to proceed further.
The problem became apparent when the lunar rover was unable to “button up” to protect it from the intense cold of the lunar night. The Yutu landed on December 14, 2013, making China the third country to land something on the lunar surface. It suffered its breakdown on January 25, 2014 and, even though its instruments have continued to work, it has been unable to move its wheels or solar panels.
Chinese engineers are working on ways to bypass the blocked circuit and to determine what had caused the problem to start with. If they can work out a way to get the Yutu rolling again, the Chinese might be able to salvage more of its mission. Otherwise Yutu, named after the rabbit that the lunar goddess Chang’e is said to have kept as a pet, is likely done after having only moved 20 meters.
The problem will likely have an impact on China’s lunar program going further. The Chinese plan to land a second lunar rover as part of the Chang’e 5 mission in 2015. A lunar sample return mission is planned for 2017. Going further, China has ambitions to land astronauts on the lunar surface, a feat which was last accomplished by the United States in 1972 with the Apollo 17 mission. A number of other countries private companies have lunar ambitions as well. Ironically, pursuant to President Obama’s directive, NASA has foresworn any aspiration to return to the moon.