There's something strange in the lunar neighborhood.
In its exploration of the Von Kármán Crater on the far side of the Moon, China's Yutu 2 rover has spotted a peculiar object on the horizon. In a very blurry image, it appears to be a cube-shaped protrusion in an otherwise relatively featureless landscape.
On a post on social network Weixin, China National Space Administration outreach program Our Space referred to it as a "mysterious hut".
"Was it a home built by aliens after the crash landing?" the post playfully speculates. "Or is it the pioneer spacecraft of the predecessors to explore the Moon?"
The answer is that it is likely neither of those things, but something that we know the Moon has in abundance: rocks. We won't know for sure, however, until Yutu 2 can close the intervening 80-meter (260-foot) distance to study it up close – a process that will take another two or three months.
That's partially because the solar-powered rover needs to shut down for the duration of the lunar night, which lasts two weeks, as well as when the Sun is directly overhead, to prevent overheating; and partially because the rover needs to travel slowly, navigating the hazardous, rubble-strewn and crater-pocked lunar terrain.
Even though we will have to wait, there are clues that offer possible hints as to the cube's identity – namely a relatively fresh impact crater nearby. This suggests the object could be a boulder excavated during the impact, a phenomenon previously observed on the Moon.
So yeah, it's not an obelisk or aliens, but certainly something to check out, and hard to discern much from the image. But large boulders (right) are sometimes excavated by impacts, as seen by the Chang'e-3 mission, which launched 8 years ago on Dec 1. [CNSA/CLEP] pic.twitter.com/ifOIFr4oQI— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) December 3, 2021
It's not the first oddity Yutu 2 has uncovered on the side of the Moon perpetually facing away from Earth. In 2019, it came across a peculiar substance described as "gel-like"; that turned out to be lunar rock melted into glass, also due to an impact.
The Moon, unprotected by an atmosphere, gets smacked into a lot.
A closer look at the "mysterious hut" will be able to tell us something about the Moon, even if it's not the presence of aliens. If it's a boulder that has been excavated from below the lunar surface, we may be able to learn something about the composition of the Moon underneath the top layer of rock and rubble. So CNSA scientists are definitely keen to get a closer look.
The rock was spotted during Yutu 2's 36th day of operations on the Moon. It's currently on its 37th lunar day, after landing in January 2019.
Planned for an original duration of three months, Yutu 2 and spacecraft Chang'e 4 are now closing in on the end of their third year, and are still going strong.