Despite what you may have read on other websites last week, China's Yutu lunar rover is probably still functional on the surface of the Moon. Yutu's still-functional status was confirmed by an official of the Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) to Andrew Jones, a space journalist in Finland. Jones wrote to me in an email this morning:
A call to the media centre of the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) reveals that Yutu "did not die but is in hibernation". It just stopped detecting work on July 28. Being 'dead', they say, means losing touch with the ground and all its signals gone, but "Yutu still has signals".
"According to procedures, Yutu will wake up this month, but whether it can continue to work will be determined by the conditions then. Maybe it will give us a surprise."
If I understand this correctly, Yutu's current hibernation (inactivity during lunar night) is therefore no different than any of the previous 32 lunar nights that it has survived. To be clear, just surviving is not scientifically useful; Yutu has been incapable of any motion since 2014, and none of its science instruments work anymore. But it's not dead yet, according to Chinese space officials! It could still wake up in the lunar morning and communicate with the ground again, as it has done 33 times before.
What happened -- how did the premature news of Yutu's death spread through English-language media? The stories circulated last week, while I was on vacation. When I returned to work yesterday, I sat down to write a short blog post on the demise of Yutu. But when I read the Google-translated Chinese-language sources (like this one on China Spaceflight), I couldn't find the date of last contact with Yutu, a detail I really wanted in my story. That seemed odd to me, because if there's one detail that typically survives machine translations, it's calendar dates. The best English-language media source on Yutu's death, this article on Spaceflight Now, said that the death date was July 28, the very beginning of the lunar night -- but how could mission controllers have confirmed Yutu's death after sunset, at a time when the rover would ordinarily have been incommunicative due to hibernation anyway? The source of that information seems to have been a post on Weibo, China's Twitter. Confused, I quit writing and sent an email to Andrew, who regularly reports on Chinese space news, asking him if he'd noticed the last-communication date in any Chinese-language websites. He began to dig and came up empty. Thus his call to the SASTIND media center this morning -- and the confirmation that Yutu is not known to be dead, just hibernating as usual, as is the lander.
Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration / The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla
Yutu on the road
The Chang'e 3 lander captured the four images for this mosaic of the Yutu rover driving southward on December 23, 2013. Yutu's right solar panel is angled downward to catch the glancing sunlight at a better angle.