Japan has successfully landed a spacecraft — dubbed the “moon sniper” — on the lunar surface, but the spacecraft’s solar panels were unable to generate power.
Scientists with Japanese space agency JAXA were reportedly initially subdued after the landing as they waited to make contact with the spacecraft. JAXA’s director later declared that the probe had managed a successful soft landing since it was sending data back to Earth. Without functional solar panels, the probe’s battery will last only a few hours, but scientists expressed hope that the panels could generate electricity once the angle of the sun changes over the coming weeks.
Japan is only the fifth country to land on the moon. The SLIM’s (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) attempt isn’t Japan’s first: In November 2022, a lander called OMOTENASHI, operating as part of NASA’s Artemis I mission, made a landing attempt but did not meet its destination.
Once spacecraft targets tiny landing area, there’s ‘no point of return’
SLIM was attempting a pinpoint landing, meaning that it had to land in an area of less than 100 meters (328 feet). Most lunar landing attempts target a range of tens of kilometers, the Japan Times noted. Once the spacecraft starts its landing procedures, “there is no point of return,” Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director-general at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, told the newspaper ahead of the landing. “We just have to watch the process believing that we have done all the preparation correctly. You might call it a risk, but that’s the way it is when it comes to landing on a large celestial body like the moon.” JAXA officials said the probe had managed a high-precision landing, Japan Times reported, but were unsure if had hit its goal of a pinpoint landing.
Landing on the moon remains difficult, six decades on
Japan’s spacecraft attempt to land on the moon in a short, 20-minute window was a challenge: 60 years after the first unmanned landing, actually touching down on the lunar surface remains a difficult task. “Just because we went there 50 years ago does not make it a trivial endeavor,” Csaba Palotai, program chair of space sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology, told Mashable in August. Since there is no atmosphere to create drag, there’s more to landing a spacecraft than floating down to the lunar surface. “There’s nothing slowing you down except your engine,” Palotai said.
Private companies are racing to the moon, but scientists worry
Japan’s private space flight company ispace attempted to land a spacecraft on the moon last April, but the attempt failed when the lander accelerated and fell to the moon’s surface. No private firm has managed to land a spacecraft on the moon to date — but if a company is successful, it would mark a new era in space exploration, analysts said. “The future is there,” Mexican astrophysicist Medina Tanco told Nature. “You can consider the Moon a new economy.”
NASA’s commercial moon programme, which aims to buy cheaper and faster rides to the lunar surface from private aerospace companies, “could open the door” for countries like Mexico to land on the moon, Nature reported. But a former NASA scientist was worried: “Can these things land and operate? The science still needs to prove itself.”