China's first lunar exploration vehicle, the Yutu rover (or “Jade Rabbit"), is experiencing technical difficulties. On Saturday, the state-run Xinhua News Agency announced that the rover is suffering from a “mechanical control abnormality” brought on by the “complicated lunar surface environment.”
What makes this story so tantalizing is not just the state's intentional vagueness surrounding the “abnormality,” but the fact that the Jade Rabbit appears to have responded to the news by penning a heartrending farewell to humanity through its unofficial Weibo page (a Chinese version of Twitter). Further magnifying the drama was the fact that the national news agency picked up the tweets (weibs?) and published them in its official dispatches. The account essentially became the official voice of the malfunctioning robot, which essentially live-blogged its own demise.
“Although I should’ve gone to bed this morning, my masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system,” Yutu was quoted as saying in Xinhua. “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.”
It's unclear who was behind the rover's microblogged swan song, but the page appears to be operated by space enthusiasts following the Yutu's journey. Over the weekend, Xinhua published English translations of the recent laments, which included a request to console the mother ship, the Chang'e-3 lander, which delivered the rover to the moon on December 14, 2013. The delivery was a landmark achievement, both for China and for the world: the mission accomplished the first soft lunar landing in 37 years. From January 11-12, the lander and rover woke up together after enduring their first lunar night. Business was going ahead as planned, with the Yutu using its mechanical arm to collect soil samples and its cameras to photograph everything around it.
But on the eve of the second lunar night, this abnormality, whatever it is, was detected. Said the Yutu of its hibernating lander mother: “[Chang'e] doesn't know about my problems yet. If I can't be fixed, everyone please comfort her.” Holy shit. If highly sentimental spacecraft like these two are the way of the future, I, for one, don't know if I can emotionally handle it. It's bad enough losing a sophisticated scientific payload without having to factor in the robot's inner turmoil.
How are we supposed to tell this lander that her baby died while she was sleeping? Image: Chinese National Space Administration/China Central Television
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese space program hasn't been particularly upfront about the nature of the problem. What we do know is that for whatever reason, the Jade Rabbit hasn't been able to enter into sleep mode in order to survive the 14-day lunar night. To prevent the rover's delicate instruments during this fortnight, during which temperatures plunge to minus 170 degrees Celsius, a radioisotope heater powers up to warm the rover's core to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Failure to ensure this temperature will result in the Jade Rabbit slowly freezing to death.
The malfunction is the rare kink in China's solid space exploration record. It also comes at a somewhat awkward time. Only a day before the problem was detected, the Opportunity rover celebrated its 10th anniversary on Mars, far exceeding NASA's expectations. That, coupled with the continued success of Curiosity, seems like moon dirt in Yutu's wounds.
But the adorably anthropomorphic rover has a good attitude about everything. “If this journey is to be suspended ahead of schedule, I am not fearful,” it assured its earthbound fans. No matter whether I can be fixed or not, I believe I have left masters much valuable information and experience.”
The rover also seems to deliver a very Sagan-like cosmic perspective in its Weibo tweets. “Before departure, I studied the history of mankind's lunar probes,” it said. “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.”
Oh, you think you're tearing up now? Well, just because we're jerks, we'll leave you with the most emotional part of the Jade Rabbit's heartfelt death note.
“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," concluded the rover. "Goodnight, humanity."
Cue full-body sobs.