China's Yutu 2 rover has reached the so-called "mystery hut" on the far side of the moon that attracted widespread attention last month — but don't get too excited.
After driving for nearly two lunar days (each lasting around two weeks on Earth and separated by a two-week night), the solar-powered Yutu 2 got close enough to get clear images of the object.
The new images, published (opens in new tab) by Ourspace, a Chinese language science outreach channel affiliated with the China National Space Administration (CNSA,) reveal a small rock near the rim of a crater, with Yutu 2's drive team describing it as a "jade rabbit" (玉兔/yutu) for its resemblance to a rabbit about to eat. Jade Rabbit is a figure from Chinese mythology that lives on the moon with Chang-e, the goddess of the moon. China's moon exploration missions are named for Chang'e and its two lunar rovers for Jade Rabbit.
Yutu 2 first spotted a distant, pixelated shape on its horizon back during the rover's 36th lunar day on the far side of the moon, which ran from late October to early November. A report from Ourspace gave the object the placeholder name of "mystery hut" (神秘小屋/shenmi xiaowu) and stated that Yutu 2 would deviate from its course to scope it out.
The image attracted interest around the world, with many speculating — mostly humorously — that it could be aliens or famous landmarks or pop culture references.
Ourspace notes that Yutu 2 has covered around 328 feet (100 meters) to approach the "mystery hut" and will go close up to the rock to analyze it and also observe the crater behind it during the next lunar day, which starts in late January. Yutu 2 carries a Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) instrument that can be used to analyze the composition and abundance of the material in lunar rock specimens.
Yutu 2 has now covered 3,294 feet (1,003.9 m) in the three years since it descended onto the lunar surface from the Chang'e 4 lander on Jan. 3, 2019.
The rover has detected hints of material from the lunar mantle, peered beneath the lunar surface using its ground-penetrating radar to build an image of distinct layers of rocks beneath, and returned a huge batch of impressive images from the lunar far side along with other discoveries.
Yutu 2 is part of the Chang'e 4 mission which made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon. Because the far side never faces the Earth, communications are facilitated by a relay satellite orbiting a Lagrange point beyond the moon.
In late 2020, Chang'e 5 collected the first lunar samples from the moon since the 1970s; China recently approved three new missions targeting the south pole of the moon.