In a weirdly anthropomorphic message, China’s lunar rover Yutu has told the Chinese public that it will probably die during the current lunar night. ”Although I should’ve gone to bed this morning, my masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system,” Yutu said, via the state-run Xinhua news agency. ”My masters are staying up all night working for a solution. I heard their eyes are looking more like my red rabbit eyes. Nevertheless, I’m aware that I might not survive this lunar night.” I’ll pause for a moment, while you wipe away your tears for Yutu (so named after the Jade Rabbit that lives on the Moon in Chinese mythology).
As you know, the lunar cycle consists of 28 Earth days. For 14 of those days, the Moon is illuminated by the Sun (a lunar day), and for the other 14 days the Moon is in shadow (a lunar night). Yutu, which is powered by solar panels, is free to move around for those 14 days — but when the long night comes, and temperatures plunge to -170C (-274F), the rover enters a state of hibernation. In sleep mode, a radioisotope heater unit (usually a few grams of radioactive plutonium) keeps the core systems warm enough that they don’t freeze to death. As always, China isn’t being particularly forthcoming with scientific data, but apparently a ”mechanical control abnormality” caused by ”the complicated lunar surface environment” is preventing Yutu from hibernating.
Chang’e 3, the lander that deposited Yutu on the Moon — so named after the Chinese goddess of the same name who lived on the Moon and had a pet rabbit called Yutu — entered hibernation normally and is expected to continue operation for another year. Yutu’s primary mission was meant to last three months (so, three or four nights), but it seems to have only made it through the first day, first night, and second day. Still, considering this is humanity’s first soft landing on the Moon in 40 years, making it half way through your primary mission isn’t so bad. We already have some stunning photos from Yutu and Chang’e 3′s time on the lunar surface, but expect to see more over the next few weeks.
We’ll leave you with some more of Yutu’s chilling farewell message. ”[Chang’e] doesn’t know about my problems yet. If I can’t be fixed, everyone please comfort her.” But then the rabbit showed a stoic side, too: ”Before departure, I studied the history of mankind’s lunar probes. About half of the past 130 explorations ended in success; the rest ended in failure. This is space exploration; the danger comes with its beauty. I am but a tiny dot in the vast picture of mankind’s adventure in space.” Perhaps the tiny dot was a reference to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.
And finally, the tear-jerking conclusion from the rover: ”The sun has fallen, and the temperature is dropping so quickly… to tell you all a secret, I don’t feel that sad. I was just in my own adventure story – and like every hero, I encountered a small problem.”
“Goodnight, Earth,” Yutu said. “Goodnight, humanity.”