China revives moon rover, but malfunction persists

BEIJING — Yutu, China’s lunar rover, is alive after all, though possibly too impaired by unspecified mechanical problems to resume its mission exploring the moon.

After hours of conflicting reports, a spokesman for China’s lunar program announced late Thursday that his agency had received electronic signals from the rover, indicating that the craft had awakened after 14 Earth days in the brutally cold lunar night.

“At first we were worried,” Pei Zhaoyu said. “But it is alive.”

The fate of Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, is closely watched here. The first Chinese space object to land on the moon — and the first by any country since a Russia probe in 1976 — Yutu is a symbol of China’s technological advance. A failure would be a partial setback to China’s space program, one of many propaganda tools China’s leaders use to shore up popular support at home.

But it’s also a serious scientific effort, equipped with technology that didn’t exist in 1976, including ground-penetrating radar expected to reveal what’s 100 feet below the lunar surface. If engineers can revive Yutu, the mission also calls for it to return soil samples to Earth that are of high interest to China and international scientists monitoring the mission.

China’s Communist Party has worked hard to give Yutu, named after a character in Chinese mythology, an almost human persona. For weeks, the government-controlled media here have been issuing statements from Yutu as if the rover were a human “tweeter.”

“Goodnight, Earth. Goodnight, humanity,” the rover’s Twitter-like social media feed said in late January as the lunar night set in.

There has been no public explanation of the “mechanical control abnormality” that first caused Chinese scientists to warn that the rover might not have completed preparations to hibernate during the lunar night, when the moon’s temperature can drop to minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit. If a rover isn’t prepared for that, experts say, it has little chance of recovering.

But China’s state media appeared to be ready Thursday to resume Yutu’s social media life.

“Hi, is anyone there?” Yutu’s account asked in its first tweet after apparently awakening.

The personification of Yutu has given the rover cult status in China, and a following elsewhere. Jon Stewart devoted six minutes of “The Daily Show” this month to Yutu and its troubles.

“China may not win the race for space,” he said. “But they have won the race for the most lyrical and poetic robot.”

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