China’s Jade Rabbit springs back to life

Tom Mitchell
A Long March-3B carrier rocket carrying China's Chang'e-3 lunar probe takes off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on December 2, 2013 in Xichang, China.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

China's Jade Rabbit Moon rover appeared to die in its sleep on Wednesday night only to wake again at dawn, as state media struggled to communicate the latest twist in the high-profile exploration project.

Just hours after the China News Service reported that the Jade Rabbit's functions "could not be fully restored", the official Xinhua news agency said that the robot was "awake" and communicating. "The rover stands a chance of being saved as it is still alive," a spokesman for the project told Xinhua.

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The Jade Rabbit later issued its first Weibo post in almost two weeks, asking "Hi, is anybody out there?"

A spokesman for China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence could not be reached for comment on the fate of a program that the Beijing leadership has invested some of its own credibility in.

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The country's state-controlled media had initially prepared the public, which has been following the Jade Rabbit's adventures since it landed in December with genuine enthusiasm, for the rover's possible demise at the end of January by giving it its own voice in an unusual report.

On January 27, a mechanical fault appeared to prevent the Jade Rabbit from fully covering up its monitoring and communications equipment on the eve of a 14-day "lunar night", when the solar-powered rover had to hibernate because the moon is in the earth's shadow.

"Although I should have gone to bed this morning, my masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system," Xinhua quoted the rover as saying halfway through its three-month mission. "I might not survive this lunar night." The Jade Rabbit's diary report came on the same weekend that NASA's Opportunity rover entered its 11th year of operations on Mars.

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When the fortnight-long lunar day dawned earlier this week, there was only radio silence from Xinhua and other state media outlets – until the brief and contradictory reports that came out overnight on Wednesday and Jade Rabbit's subsequent Weibo post.

"It is hard to say whether the Jade Rabbit is dead or alive because we don't know exactly what the glitch is," said Jiao Weixin, professor at Peking University's School of Earth and Space Science. "In the old days there wouldn't have been any report until they were sure it was absolutely dead."

The rover was launched with full media fanfare on December 1 and dominated the domestic news agenda. Blanket coverage of its two-week journey to the moon was used to downplay the regional crisis sparked just a few days earlier by China's declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea.

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The Jade Rabbit's successful lunar landing on December 14 was hailed as a national triumph, and President Xi Jinping congratulated the project's scientists and engineers in person. It was the first successful landing on the Moon in almost 40 years and made China only the third nation to engineer a "soft landing" on the surface, after the US and former Soviet Union, and will soften the blow for many if the Jade Rabbit does not complete its mission as planned.

"No matter what the future may hold, you cannot say the Jade Rabbit is a failure," said Fu Song, an aerospace professor at Tsinghua University. "It landed and was functioning. That was an important first for Chinese science."

China, a recent entrant to the space race, intends to land a person on the moon by 2025.