After arriving on the moon on December 14, China’s Yutu rover experienced a malfunction in late January, just before hibernating for its second two-week-long lunar night. Yutu seemed to bravely embrace its fate, relaying a message to “comfort” the Chang’e lunar lander, and offering some very down-to-Earth (sorry) philosophy: “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.” I couldn’t have put it any better myself, Yutu. Just before the beloved Chinese rover signed off, it relayed the message: “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. Goodnight, humanity.” I never thought I could get choked up over mechanical lunar explorer, but somewhere along the way the “Jade Rabbit” stopped feeling like a machine.
Yutu was supposed to wake up from the lunar night yesterday, but didn’t, prompting the China Daily to report that the rover had indeed died during the frigid two-week period. But anyone who’s ever read or watched science fiction (or Gravity) knows that death may not be a permanent condition. Indeed, late last night UHF-Satcom, a website that monitors cosmic radio signals, detected a faint signal from Yutu. Perhaps the fat lady hasn’t sung after all.
“Hi, anybody there?” asked the rover via the signal, prompting a huge response on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has confirmed a report in the Chinese media
that indicates “It came back to life! At least it is alive and so it is possible we could save it.” Experts still don’t know the cause of the malfunction, and they don’t know whether Yutu will function properly going forward, but they did confirm that it can send and receive signals normally.
Yutu’s sidekick, the Chang’e-3 lander, didn’t experience any known malfunctions, so experts have no reason to think that it’s been compromised. Everyone is waiting for a full report from Chinese space officials. In the meantime, the outpouring of support from citizens may have bolstered the Jade Rabbit. It’s like when Elliott’s love brought ET back to life. This stuff really happens, people, you just have to believe.
The Chinese space program hopes that the Yutu mission will be a precursor to a manned moon mission, and eventually a new space station. Thus far, it seems that the rover is a worthy role model of the kind of grit and resilience we want our astronauts—not just George Clooney—to embody.