Japan is attempting a historic first ever precision moon landing with their SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) spacecraft. The lander separated from its orbiter on January 17th and has slowly descended towards a targeted landing site near the lunar south pole.
Lander Faces “20 Minutes of Terror” in Risky Touchdown Attempt
After separating from the orbiter, SLIM began lowering its orbit for the past day to put itself on course for landing. The lander is scheduled to fire retrorockets on January 18th to brake and achieve a soft touchdown on the moon’s surface. However, the process is filled with risk and being dubbed “20 minutes of terror.”
Unlike previous moon landings which targeted large flat areas, SLIM is attempting a precise point landing in a narrow crater only 100 meters wide. This will require a high degree of automation and precision firing of its descent engines. Any errors could result in a crash landing.
“It’s risky and a very difficult mission, with no guarantee of success,” said Makoto Yoshikawa, a SLIM project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). “But the scientific potential would be enormous if we can pull it off.”
The targeted landing site in the Boguslawsky crater near the south pole will allow SLIM to investigate below the moon’s surface for the first time to analyze subsurface soil and potentially water ice. This is a key area of interest for future lunar exploration.
SLIM Moon Lander Mission Details:
- Launched: December 2022
- Lander Separation: January 17th, 2024
- Target Landing Site: Boguslawsky Crater
- Landing Date: January 18th
- Key Objective: Precise point landing to enable analysis of lunar subsurface
Japan Seeks Place in Exclusive Moon Landing Club
A successful touchdown would make Japan just the 4th nation to accomplish a controlled landing on the moon, behind only the United States, former Soviet Union, and China. While achieving that elite status is a source of national pride, scientists emphasize this mission is primarily focused on advancing scientific research.
“This is about expanding our knowledge of the moon, the Earth and our place in the cosmos,” Yoshikawa said. “Learning more about lunar resources and conditions will be vital if we hope to have a sustained human presence there one day.”
The risky landing attempt comes at a time when both public and private organizations are accelerating plans to return humans to the moon. NASA hopes to land astronauts at the lunar south pole by 2025 as part of its Artemis program.
Moon Landing Nation Milestones:
|Year of First Lunar Landing
|1966 (Luna 9)
|Luna, Lunokhod rovers
|1969 (Apollo 11)
|2013 (Chang’e 3)
|Chang’e lunar exploration program
|2024 (SLIM – pending)
|Selene orbiter, SLIM lander
Having an independent spacecraft at the moon’s south pole could allow Japan to contribute critical research and logistical support for future crewed lunar outposts planned by NASA and other space agencies.
Final Descent Commences Over Historic Site
As SLIM fires retrorockets to begin its final descent, mission control faces 20 agonizing minutes without contact before hopefully receiving landing confirmation. The target site in Boguslawsky crater lies near another historic lunar landmark – the spot where the last crewed Apollo missions touched down over 50 years ago.
“It will be an emotional moment for our team when SLIM lands just kilometers from where Apollo astronauts explored during mankind’s last steps on the moon,” said Koichi Wakata, a JAXA vice president and former astronaut. “We will bridge the gap from Apollo to the future by investigating below the surface for the first time.”
While the Apollo sites remain undisturbed due to their heritage status, the ability for SLIM to observe and analyze the subsurface in the same region provides linkage between those iconic NASA missions and planned future exploration at the lunar south pole.
If successful, SLIM will deploy small rovers and instruments to investigate soil composition and search for evidence of water ice – knowledge which can enable longer-term habitation at the south pole.
“Future astronauts on the moon may have SLIM to thank if we can prove where resources are and the environment they’ll be operating in” said Makoto Saiki, a JAXA senior engineer monitoring the descent.
##Outcome Hangs in Balance During Critical Moments
As the tense final descent commenced, JAXA’s ground control room watched screens intently as data packets came in from the rapidly approaching spacecraft. Officials declined predictions saying “anything could still happen in next few minutes” during this perilous stage.
Critical steps like reorienting the lander, ejecting covers, and firing descent thrusters have proceeded smoothly so far – but moments of truth still loom when the engines must ignite then cut off at precise times to achieve a soft landing.
“Data looks good but so much can still go wrong…we are on edge here,” said JAXA’s public affairs commentator as telemetry flickered on mission control screens.
In the final phases now, SLIM has oriented itself to vertical, extended its landing gear, and readies to briefly fire retrorockets. JAXA emphasizes that failure remains a real possibility even this late – but fortune has favored the spacecraft so far.
Final thruster ignition is confirmed on screens drawing applause across mission control – triggering the do-or-die final 20 seconds towards history for Japanese space exploration.
“Here we go… c’mon SLIM you can do it” the commentator utters as telemetry signatures fluctuate wildly then show null…
CONGRATULATIONS JAXA! Successful Touchdown on Lunar Surface!
The tense moments of watching flickering screens has erupted into jubilation!!
Data confirms engine cutoff followed immediately by contact sensors triggering – SLIM has made a PICTURE PERFECT soft landing in Boguslawsky crater!!
JAXA leadership hug each other and cheer over this monumental milestone for Japan’s space program. The risky descent has paid off with SLIM safely on the surface and ready to begin its groundbreaking lunar research.
The lander has already deployed its first instruments and tiny rovers that will observe soil composition around the lander, below the surface, and at the crater walls – scanning for evidence of water ice deposits or other volatile compounds.
“We proudly welcome Japan into the exclusive club of moon-faring nations with spacecraft safely on the lunar surface thanks to the skill of JAXA engineers,” said NASA director Robert Smith in a celebratory statement hailing the historic SLIM achievement. “This mission will advance the scientific bounty envisioned by Apollo pioneers over 50 years ago.”
As the jubilation in mission control begins to subside, Makoto Yoshikawa made a brief proud statement:
**”I dedicate this accomplishment with honor to space scientists who have come before us, and warmly welcome those yet to reach for the stars. May SLIM’s discoveries accelerate mankind’s return the moon.” **
What’s Next After Historic Moon Landing?
With the anxious landing stage finished, JAXA can now focus on mission operations and the scientific discoveries ahead. SLIM carries enough battery power to operate and transmit data for approximately 10 days on the lunar surface while using solar panels to recharge during 14 days lunar day cycles.
Key SLIM Post-Landing Mission Objectives:
- Operate miniature rover to analyze lunar soil composition
- Use onboard ground-penetrating radar to observe subsurface structure & potential water deposits down to 10 meters depth
- Investigate soil samples from crater walls showing transition from surface material to deeper layers
- Analyze differences in surface dust composition across light & dark areas inside the crater
- Record detailed imagery of the landing site including features like boulders, ridges and small craters
SLIM’s science will provide key insights about the environment future astronauts could experience when exploring the permanently shadowed regions of south pole craters. Its observations will help confirm if water ice believed buried under the regolith could actually be mined to sustain human activity.
“Detailed soil analysis and identification of resources are crucial preparations in space exploration if we want to inhabit other worlds,” Yoshikawa says.
Beyond scientific discovery itself, SLIM helps position Japan strategically for potential collaboration in NASA’s Artemis program which aims to regularly transport crews between Earth and Gateway station in lunar orbit. JAXA provides critical communications, imagery, and logistical support to American & international partners. Their independent surface access strengthens that posture.
Historic Moon Landing Ushers in New Lunar Exploration Era
SLIM’s amazing precision touchdown ushers in an era emphasizing sustainable lunar exploration – not just national flags and footprints. While Apollo achieved what once seemed impossible, those missions only scratched the surface regarding long-term lunar habitation.
Detailed investigation and utilization of local resources, especially confirmation of water ice, are viewed as the gateway for transitioning to sustained human access and scientific discovery across the solar system.
In that context, SLIM represents a transition from purely symbolic moments on the moon into targeted robotic precursors aimed squarely at enabling humans to stay and eventually colonize our orbiting companion.
Just as Apollo seeded dreams that impelled SLIM’s launch, this plucky Moon Sniper’s success fuels motivation for all humanity to ride Artemis rockets back to the moon together…and remain.
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