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China's Yutu lunar rover developed possible mission ending glitch

Chang'e landing site
Chang'e landing site
NASA

The Planetary Society, in a January 25, 2014 post, reports that the Chinese lunar rover Yutu, which was landed on the moon by the Chang’e 3 space probe, seems to have developed a mechanical glitch that might end the mission prematurely.

“In order to survive the lunar night, Yutu positions itself with one solar panel angled toward the direction of the rising sun. Then it folds down the mast that carries its color camera and its high-gain antenna into its body. Then the other solar panel is folded over the deck like a lid, insulating the interior and the mast, which are kept warm with a radioisotope heating unit. According to various reports online, it sounds like something in this sequence did not execute properly, although the reports are unspecific so I'm not sure yet what happened.”

If the Chinese ground controllers are unable to fix this glitch quickly, Yutu likely will not survive the two week long lunar night that has just begun. It would be a disappointing end to an otherwise wildly successful mission that has catapulted China into the top rank of space exploration powers. The mission of Chang’e 3 and Yutu has elicited both admiration and consternation from the United States, the former for the awe inspiring feat, the latter because by government policy and presidential directive, the United States has largely abandoned lunar exploration.

Even if Yutu ultimately dies prematurely, the Chinese are planning a similar mission, the Chang’e 4. Lessons learned from the current mission can be incorporated on the upcoming one.