Japan hails ‘pinpoint’ moon landing – but spacecraft loses power after less than three hours

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Japan’s moon lander touched down with “pinpoint” precision, its space agency has said, after the country become the fifth in the world to successfully reach lunar soil.

The Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), also known as the “moon sniper”, landed within 100m (328ft) of its target, out-striping conventional accuracy targets, it was announced on Thursday.

But the spacecraft, launched at the weekend, lost power within just two hours and 37 minutes – meaning its camera, intended to capture the composition of moon rocks, was only able to generate low resolution images.

However, the lander had enough time to transmit all the data about the touchdown to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

SLIM makes use of “vision-based” navigation that could be a powerful tool for future exploration of hilly moon poles to identify potential sources of fuel, life-giving water and oxygen, according to JAXA.

The spacecraft could have landed as close as 3m (10ft) from its target but was hampered after one of its two main engines is thought to have stopped in the final phase of touchdown, causing it to drift.

A picture released by JAXA, taken by a wheeled rover SLIM deployed, shows the lander toppled over on the slope of a crater on the moon surface.

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The tumble saw the spacecraft angled westward – preventing its solar panels from generating electricity.

A change in the direction of sunlight could enable the craft the regain power before the next lunar sunset on 1 February brings freezing temperatures.

The SLIM is “not designed to survive a lunar night,” project manager, Shinichiro Sakai, told a press conference.

The power failure comes just days after the doomed Peregrine spacecraft, launched by a private company in the first US moon landing mission in more than half a century, developed a “critical” fuel leak.

US manufacturer Astrobotic said the lander would be allowed to “burn up” during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, after a “difficult decision” was made that it stood “no chance” of landing on the moon.

Image:
The Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) taken by LEV-2 on the moon. Pic: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency/Reuters

However, it is hoped SLIM’s successful landing could lead to further lunar exploration and help to revitalise Tokyo’s space programme.

“We proved that you can land wherever you want, rather than where you are able to,” Mr Sakai added.

“This will inspire more and more people, desirably Japanese missions, to try and land on unexplored places on the moon.”

Setbacks in rocket development

Japan, which is home to a number of private space start-ups, aims to send an astronaut to the moon as part of NASA‘s Artemis programme.

But it has battled a string of setbacks in its rocket development, including the launch failure of its H3 rocket in March.

JAXA was forced to send a self-destruct command to the H3, which cost £1.22bn (200 billion yen) to develop, minutes after it took off.

Just three weeks earlier, Tokyo’s space programme had to abort a launch at the Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Japan because of a separate glitch.

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The H3 launch failure delayed several space missions, including SLIM and also LUPEX, a joint lunar exploration project with India, which made a historic touchdown on the moon’s south pole in August.

Boosted by its success, India launched its first rocket to study the sun ten days after the moon landing.

US start-up, Intuitive Machines, aims to launch its IM-1 lander next month.

Meanwhile China intends to send its Chang’e-6 spacecraft to the far side of the moon in the first half of this year.

NASA’s launch of its lunar polar exploration rover, VIPER, is currently expected in November.

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