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Japan has landed a small spacecraft on the Moon, joining an elite club to have achieved the feat, but a power problem threatens its ability to study the lunar surface.
The 2.4-metre tall lunar lander’s touchdown made Japan the fifth nation to execute a successful soft landing of a spacecraft after the Soviet Union, US, China and more recently India.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) confirmed communication with the spacecraft but said it was unable to generate solar power. The power issue jeopardises its ability to study the lunar surface and search for clues on the Moon’s origins.
The mission, which has been decades in development, follows a series of setbacks for Japan’s space exploration plans despite a surge in investment and deeper collaboration with the US and other allies to counter China’s ambitions.
In March last year, Japan’s newest rocket, the H3, was issued with a self-destruct order after an engine failure shortly after its launch, while a bid by private exploration company ispace to achieve the world’s first commercial landing on the Moon failed in April.
Jaxa’s spacecraft, known as Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (Slim), touched down on the lunar surface at about 12.20am Tokyo time on Saturday following a 20-minute descent. Known as “Moon Sniper” for its use of precision-landing technology, the craft targeted a landing zone of just 100 metres compared with an area of tens of kilometres for previous lunar missions.
After almost two hours, Jaxa confirmed the success in landing while also announcing the power issue. The agency said Slim was at present using its on-board battery, which is expected to last for only “a few hours,” to send landing data to Earth, adding that it would take more time to analyse whether it had made a precision landing, it added.
But the landing “paves the way for access to the Moon surface” that would allow Japan to “share its expertise through international co-operation”, said Hiroshi Yamakawa, Jaxa president.
The “soft” landing was intended to allow the Slim spacecraft to deploy onboard instruments and rovers to explore the lunar surface, which could offer scientists vital clues about the origins and composition of the Moon.
Before the landing, James Blake, research fellow at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Space Domain Awareness, said: “Slim is an exciting mission that aims to advance precision-landing techniques, paving the way forward for future spacecraft to land precisely where they need to. Exploration of the Moon and our planetary neighbours can grant us access to more pieces of the puzzle that is the universe.”
Slim began its 384,000km journey to the Moon after launching in September aboard a Japanese H-IIA rocket, entering lunar orbit on December 25.
Using a multi-band spectral camera, scientists had hoped Slim would be able to investigate the composition of rocks that might help scientists discover the Moon’s origins.
Kazuto Saiki, professor at Ritsumeikan University who developed the spectral camera, said the precision-landing technology would also be crucial to Nasa’s Artemis project.
The US space agency’s programme aims to land astronauts near the Moon’s south pole. Craters in permanent shadow at the poles may hold large reservoirs of ice, offering huge potential for scientific discovery but also posing significant navigational issues to ensure safe landing and operations.
Despite fierce global competition to reach the Moon, lunar missions have proven difficult. An attempt by private operator Astrobotic Technology last week to land US spacecraft Peregrine One on the Moon ended after suffering a propulsion fault which resulted in a loss of fuel. Israel’s Beresheet lander crashed in 2019. Seven countries have made hard landings on the Moon.
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