BEIJING — China said its first lunar rover is experiencing mechanical problems, a rare setback for its burgeoning space program that in recent years has conducted spacewalks and placed a space station in orbit.
News of the rover’s troubles were splashed across newspapers on Monday and even featured at the Foreign Ministry’s daily briefing, with spokesman Qin Gang expressing hope that the rover could “return to normal.”
The six-wheeled Yutu vehicle began operating last month after making the first soft landing on the moon by a space probe in 37 years. It was designed to roam the lunar surface for three months, survey for natural resources and — along with its stationary lander, Chang’e 3 — send back data.
The Chang’e 3 mission is named after a Chinese moon goddess, and the rover is named after her long-eared companion, Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” a mythological Chinese animal also said to live on the moon.
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China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft made headlines last month for the first lunar soft landing since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission, sent to collect samples in 1976.
The rover has conducted an analysis of the lunar soil, and the lander has used its optical telescope and ultraviolet camera to observe the Earth’s plasmasphere.
The mission has been a popular success for China’s space program, and the rover has attracted more than 150,000 followers on its microblog.
It last posted on Saturday, saying repairs were under way and hope was not lost.
“Sorry to make you all sad. The engineers and I haven’t given up yet,” according to a translation of the first-person account. “If this journey is to end prematurely, I’m not afraid.
“Whether or not I can be fixed, I know that my failure can provide my masters with a lot of valuable information and experience.”
Just before going into its second “lunar night,” which lasts two weeks, the rover began experiencing problems. It doesn’t help that during lunar night, the temperature can drop to minus-292 and it’s too dark to power the solar-powered spacecraft.
The 300-pound rover 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.
Online speculation focused on the possibility of lunar dust having blocked one of the solar panels from folding inward, leaving equipment exposed to the dangerously low temperatures. It won’t be known if the probe is able to function again until after the two-week break.
China’s space program has made steady progress since the country launched its first manned spacecraft in 2003. It has launched a lunar orbiter, conducted spacewalks, and put into orbit a prototype space station, to be replaced by a permanent station at the end of the decade.
Already a source of enormous national pride, the space program has increasingly sought to connect with the public through social media and educational outreach. China’s second woman in space, Wang Yaping, conducted China’s first “space classroom” to students nationwide from the prototype space station, the Tiangong.
The rover and lander are one step in China’s plans to explore space. Chang’e 3 follows two other lunar explorers, Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2, and plans are already in progress for a Chang’e 5 mission, which could potentially bring lunar samples back to Earth.