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China says Jade Rabbit moon rover alive but weak

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Jade Rabbit moon rover is alive and functional, state media said on Wednesday, but technical problems and bitterly cold lunar nights have "weakened considerably" the buggy's ability to operate.

Jade Rabbit, named after a lunar goddess in traditional Chinese mythology, landed on the moon in December to great national fanfare. The buggy, which began experiencing "mechanical control abnormalities" in late January, is on a mission to conduct geological surveys and hunt for natural resources.

The rover is still able to send data back to Earth using the Chang'e 3 probe that delivered it, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing Li Bengzheng, deputy commander-in-chief of China's lunar programme.

But the buggy's wheels and the solar panel designed for thermal insulation during the frozen lunar nights no longer work, Li said. The craft's functionality is progressively deteriorating "with each lunar night," Li said.

China has been moving to develop its space programme for military, commercial and scientific purposes but it is still playing catch-up to established space powers the United States and Russia.

The Jade Rabbit and the Chang'e 3 probe marked the first "soft landing" on the moon since 1976. Beforehand, both the United States and the Soviet Union accomplished the feat.

(Reporting By Matthew Miller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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