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Waiting for Yutu
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Feb 03, 2014

Yutu on the moon.

It's been more than a week since China's first robot lunar rover developed some serious mechanical problems. It was unable to fold one of its two solar panels inwards to protect its most sensitive components from the cold lunar night. We will need to wait longer to find out exactly how much damage Yutu has sustained from two weeks of darkness, but the prognosis for some of its parts is not good.

It's a shame that Yutu has suffered from these problems, but it is a common element of spaceflight. Yutu is the first Chinese rover to work in space, and it is operating in an environment that is even more hazardous than Mars.

Yutu survived a flight through cislunar space, landing and deployment. It managed to rove around and use its instruments for more than a lunar day. China had always framed the mission of the Chang'e-3 spacecraft that carried Yutu to the Moon as an engineering mission as well as a scientific one.

This was all about testing as much equipment as possible under actual conditions. Watching things fail is as instructive as watching them work in this scenario.

That's already happened in the case of seeing the mechanism that folds the solar panel malfunction. But there's more to come. Although it may seem grim, seeing how much damage is done to the rest of the rover will also be useful.

China's first lunar landing was highly ambitious. It is to their credit that it has mostly gone so well. It has produced useful scientific data from all its instruments and demonstrated advanced capabilities such as precision landing on an alien world. The mission is also far from being over.

In a best-case scenario, Yutu may still have mobility but lose the operation of some of its instruments. If this is the case, it could be navigated with the aid of the main camera mast on the Chang'e-3 lander, which can observe it at a distance.

Whatever else is still working on Yutu could be used for scientific investigations. If Yutu is incapacitated, let's not forget that the Chang'e lander itself will still be operational, along with its own collection of scientific instruments.

Space fans in China and around the world are lamenting Yutu's plight. Once its fate is resolved we hope that attention will shift to all the good things it accomplished, and how productive the whole mission of the Chang'e-3 mission has been.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


Related Links
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
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