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China's Yutu lunar rover may have been killed by a fall of moondust

Moon as seen by Apollo 12

Because of a mechanical fault that prevented the Chinese Yutu lunar rover to button up for the two week long lunar night, many fear that the plucky space probe named after the pet bunny of the Chinese moon goddess, is doomed. Ground controllers will not know for sure until the start of the next lunar day, about February 8.

According to a January 27, 2014 story in the New Scientist, lunar dust may be the culprit.

“As for what caused the malfunction, abrasive lunar dust is a top suspect. Moon soil gets ground up by micrometeoroid impacts into a glassy dust that can then become charged as it is bombarded by solar particles. During the Apollo program the sharp-edged dust grains wore through astronaut space suits, scratched up mirrors used for laser ranging experiments and caused moon buggies to overheat.

“Rover designers can take measures to avoid getting this damaging dust inside important systems, says Bernard Foing, director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group. ‘However, lunar dust can be electrostatically charged and can stick on sensitive parts,’ he says. The abrupt temperature change when the airless moon goes from day to night can also put a huge stress on mechanical systems and could have damaged the rover's moving parts, says Foing.”

Dealing with lunar dust is going to be a vexing problem when human beings finally return to the moon. Back during Project Constellation, NASA’s Glenn Research Center was conducting studies on how to deal with it, including strategies on how to prevent lunar dust contamination and on how to minimize its effects.

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