China’s Yutu lunar rover has been reported to have mechanical problems, possibly putting the continuation of its mission at risk.
The vehicle, having famously landed on the Moon in the first soft touch-down in 37 years on 14 December, has been said to fail to properly shut down for lunar night, which lasts two weeks.
For the equipment to survive this period, with temperatures plummeting as low as minus 180°C, the rover has to position itself with one solar panel tilted towards the rising Sun. Afterwards, the main mast carrying the rover colour camera and the high-gain antenna is folded inside the body of the rover and covered with the other solar panel as with a lid. In this configuration, the rover’s insides are kept insulated and warm using a radioactive power source.
The rover successfully survived its first lunar night but failed to fold properly for the second instance.
Speculations have appeared online, suggesting lunar dust might have blocked the mechanism enabling one of the panels to fold inward. That means the scientific equipment might have been left exposed to the harsh lunar conditions and freezing temperatures. In this situation, engineers won't be unable to tell whether the probe will function properly until the end of the lunar night.
"Sorry to make you all sad. The engineers and I haven't given up yet," a post on the rover’s blog, followed by more than 150,000 people, said on Saturday.
Yutu, so far one of the biggest successes of China’s space programme, was supposed to roam the lunar surface for three months while searching for natural resources and sending back data.
When the glitch occurred, Yutu was traversing a relatively flat part of the Moon known as Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, at a speed of 200 yards per hour.
Its landing vehicle, Chang’e 3, has already shut down for the lunar night. The lander is designed to conduct scientific examinations for one year.