by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jan 06, 2014
After two weeks of frigid lunar night, China's Yutu Moon rover and the Chang'e-3 lander that carried it will soon awake from their slumber. Surviving the lunar night is probably the last of the big challenges posed to this mission. Once China's twin lunar robots are functioning again, the mission will be on its way to a long spell of productive work.
We have grown accustomed to seeing rovers on Mars, and also used to their longevity. We have just celebrated the tenth anniversary of the landing of Opportunity, one of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, which is still working on that planet! Its sister, Spirit, managed to function for just over six years. That's not bad for two probes that were designed to work on Mars for around three months.
Apart from some outstanding design, engineering, assembly and control, the longevity of NASA's Mars rovers is partially due to conditions on that planet. The rovers must survive long Martian winters, but they still have a relatively short day and night cycle, marginally longer than Earth's.
Solar power is not usually absent for too long, barring dust storms. Furthermore, Mars has a tenuous atmosphere that helps to regulate the temperature of the planet. The Moon is a far harsher place, and we cannot expect Yutu to survive for as long as its Martian colleagues.
Yutu is keeping warm with the aid of small radioisotope heaters that keep its electronics from freezing. This is standard practice for rovers on either world. Yutu has also folded its camera and antenna mast inside its body, then folded its solar panels closed like lids on a box.
It's like an animal curling up for hibernation, to reduce its surface area. The folded parts are also in closer contact with the aforementioned heat source. This "fold up" technique is not used on Mars but was used by the Lunokhod Moon rovers launched by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, which opened and closed their solar panels on a large clamshell lid.
Yutu has an advertised operational life of three months. In practice, we could probably expect it to function for longer than this. This analyst would not be surprised to see Yutu at work for roughly six months, but stretching its mission beyond this will be challenging. Nevertheless, we shouldn't completely dismiss the possibility of a lunar marathon for the probe.
Yutu will have two weeks of daylight, as the sun slowly rises and sets over its landing site. The gradual change in solar angle will affect shadows and some of the properties of the lunar surface, such as the temperature of rocks and soil. Differences in photographs will be apparent.
China's first lunar lander will gradually trickle out more science in the days ahead. Some results will take months to be processed, as raw data is turned into knowledge by scientists.
Morris Jones is an independent space analyst who has covered the space programs of Asia since 1999 for SpaceDaily. He can be contacted via morrisjones at hotmail.com.
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