Japan Achieves Soft Lunar Landing, Faces Power Issue

LUNAR ROBOT This handout photo taken in 2022, received on Jan. 18, 2024 from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and
credited to JAXA, Takara Tomy, Sony Group Corp. and Doshisha University, shows the transformable lunar surface robot ‘SORA-Q’ (operation verification
model) installed on the private company’s lunar module for the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission at an undisclosed location. Japan’s
‘Moon Sniper’ spacecraft made a historic lunar touchdown on Saturday, January 20, using pinpoint technology. HANDOUT PHOTO FROM JAPAN
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Japan made history on Saturday as the fifth nation to achieve a soft lunar landing. However, the country’s “Moon Sniper” spacecraft is facing a power issue due to a solar battery problem. After a nerve-wracking 20-minute descent, Japan’s space agency, JAXA, confirmed that its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) had successfully touched down and established communication. Unfortunately, without the functioning solar cells, the “Moon Sniper” will only have power for a limited number of hours.

SLIM is part of a new wave of lunar missions launched by both governments and private firms, marking 50 years since the first human Moon landing. However, crash landings and communication failures have been common, with only four other countries successfully reaching the Moon: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and India.

While mission control focuses on gathering data while they still can, JAXA official Hitoshi Kuninaka suggested that the solar batteries might start working again once the angle of the sun changes. He explained during an early-hours news conference that if the descent had not been successful, the probe would have crashed at a high speed, resulting in a loss of functionality. However, data is being sent back to Earth.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed his satisfaction with the landing but acknowledged the need for a more detailed analysis of the solar cells. NASA chief Bill Nelson also congratulated Japan on their achievement and emphasized the value of their partnership and collaboration in space exploration.

JAXA aims to analyze the data acquired during the landing to determine whether SLIM successfully landed within 100 meters of its intended spot. The spacecraft’s target was a crater where the Moon’s mantle, the usually deep inner layer beneath its crust, is believed to be exposed on the surface.

During the landing, two probes detached successfully. One of them carries a transmitter, while the other is designed to explore the lunar surface and beam images back to Earth. The shape-shifting mini-rover, slightly larger than a tennis ball, was co-developed by the company behind the Transformer toys.

Although the accuracy of the touchdown still needs verification, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell considers the mission a significant success. McDowell speculates that several factors could have caused the solar panel problem, such as a loose wire, incorrect wiring, or the lander being upside down and unable to receive sunlight.

While JAXA hopes to have downloaded images from the landing, the scientist mentions that an experiment to study the composition of Moon rocks may be a lost cause. Nevertheless, the successful soft landing by Japan’s SLIM spacecraft has reignited interest in lunar exploration, with countries like Russia, China, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates also attempting to reach the Moon.

It’s worth noting that Japan has had previous lunar mission failures, both publicly and privately. In 2022, the country sent a lunar probe named Omotenashi as part of the United States’ Artemis 1 mission, which was unsuccessful. Additionally, a Japanese startup called ispace attempted to become the first private company to land on the Moon in April but lost communication with its craft after a “hard landing.”

As countries and private entities continue to pursue lunar exploration, Japan’s achievement serves as a reminder of the challenges and risks involved in venturing beyond our planet. The data gathered from SLIM’s landing will undoubtedly contribute to our understanding of the Moon and pave the way for future missions.

Source: The Manila Times

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