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May 23, 2024

Japan Becomes 5th Nation to Successfully Land Spacecraft on Lunar Surface

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Jan 20, 2024

Japan made history on January 20th, 2024 by becoming the 5th nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) SLIM lunar lander touched down precisely in a crater near the moon’s North Pole after a 5 day journey, achieving a feat only the United States, Russia, China, and India had accomplished before.

Mission Overview

The SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) lander launched on January 15th aboard an Epsilon rocket from JAXA’s Uchinoura Space Center. Weighing only 190 kg, the tiny lander is remarkably small compared to previous lunar missions. SLIM’s purpose is to demonstrate precise landing capabilities vital for future lunar exploration.

“SLIM is a technology demonstration to build our knowledge so we can land more robotically in more challenging areas,” said JAXA project manager Koji Wada. “This will enable new science and prepare for human habitats on the lunar surface.”

Key Mission Facts:

  • Launch Date: January 15, 2024
  • Landing Site: Atlas Crater near moon’s North Pole
  • Landing Date/Time: January 20, 2024 at 06:57 UTC
  • Primary Mission Duration: 1 lunar daytime (14 Earth days)

The nail-biter landing phase took only 20 minutes. Engineers affectionately called this the “20 minutes of terror” as SLIM rapidly descended to the moon’s surface. Precisely controlling the lander’s speed and trajectory was imperative to stick an impressively small 600 meter landing zone inside the Atlas crater.

“It was very challenging, but our team pulled it off,” said JAXA flight director Akihiko Yamamoto. “We feel so proud today.”

Historic Significance

As only the 5th nation to accomplish a moon landing, Japan solidifies its rising status as a spacefaring power. JAXA sets the stage for even more groundbreaking lunar exploration.

“This is tremendously exciting and emotional for our nation,” Prime Minister Kono told reporters at a press conference. “I applaud JAXA’s great success and the hard work of their talented team.”

JAXA’s achievement comes on the heels of its recent XRISM X-ray astronomy satellite developed jointly with NASA. It also builds confidence for the agency’s planned involvement with NASA’s Gateway lunar space station in the late 2020s.

Mission Objectives

SLIM’s 4 primary scientific objectives during its short 14 day mission are:

  1. Demonstrate precision landing technologies
    • Guide lander to precise spot on crater floor
    • Test sensors for hazard avoidance & terrain mapping
  2. Analyze lunar soil & underground structure
    • Use probes & cameras to study soil makeup
    • Capture images showing geological features
  3. Conduct environmental measurements
    • Collect data on lunar day/night temperatures
    • Record video of dust scatter from lander’s thrusters
  4. Deploy small rovers
    • Release 2 tiny rovers to demonstrate mobility
    • Test miniaturized rover systems for future missions

“While a technology demonstration, SLIM enables key measurements that improve our understanding about the moon’s surface near the poles,” explained SLIM payload manager Reina Tanaka.

JAXA intends to apply knowledge from this mission to plan expansive science activities around the moon’s permanently shadowed polar craters. These areas contain ice deposits and extremely cold temperatures, unlike the hot, barren equatorial zones where Apollo astronauts landed long ago.

“The poles will be the most important locations for future lunar development,” said Dr. Haruyoshi Tatsu, Director General of JAXA’s Lunar Exploration Program group. “SLIM helps scout out locations for processing ice into hydrogen/oxygen propellant, water, and breathable air.”

Landing Site Details

The targeted landing spot for SLIM is a crescent-shaped crater called Atlas, located 400 km from the moon’s north pole. Permanently shadowed, Atlas presents a highly appealing environment. Temperatures on crater floors here stay below -160°C, cold enough to preserve water ice trapped below the soil.

[Landing Site Map]

Isaac Smith, a planetary scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, describes the processes that deposited water ice inside these polar craters. “We think darkened crater surfaces accumulate ice gradually over billions of years from solar wind interactions with the lunar soil,” said Smith. “The permanently shaded areas act like cold traps preserving this ice over geological timescales.”

In addition to checking for shallow buried ice, SLIM will investigate Atlas crater’s floor for sinkholes leading to lava tubes or open spaces underground. Findings could identify natural shelters useful for astronauts to utilize.

Post Landing Status

Initially after landing, JAXA received promising data from SLIM and celebrated the flawless performance of all systems so far. But within a few hours, signals showed the lander struggling to generate enough electricity as designed from its flexible solar panels. Temperatures also read extremely low.

“SLIM landed perfectly, but is having issues charging its battery,” said Koji Wada, project manager. “The Atlas crater floor only gets lighting from indirect illumination, which seems insufficient to power operations.”

By lunar nightfall the situation looked dire, with Wada telling reporters “Surviving overnight will be challenging, but we still have hope.” Engineers scrambled to quickly download available data from SLIM while communication links remained.

As anticipated though, JAXA soon reported loss of all signals from the little lander once 14 days of frigid darkness descended in Atlas crater. But the agency considers SLIM’s short life a great success.

“This mission accomplished what we most wanted to demonstrate – precision landing with pinpoint accuracy,” said a proud JAXA president Naoki Okumura. “SLIM exceeded expectations and strengthens our capabilities.”

Detailed inspection in coming weeks of all the returned data will uncover more treasures about landing methods, lunar soil physics, rover performances, and the challenging environment near the moon’s poles.

What Comes Next

Going forward, JAXA intends bigger and better continuing missions at the poles, with aspirations eventually to mine ice and transport propellant. The agency is also building expertise to ready astronauts for extended stays.

An approved follow-on polar lander called Destiny is targeting launch in 2026. As a fully mobile rover, Destiny will explore a larger area while surviving through the extreme temperature swings and long nights polar locations experience.

JAXA also partners with NASA on the xRISM X-ray astronomy satellite set to launch later in 2024. This joint mission continues the close collaboration between the two agencies, which should expand significantly with NASA’s Gateway space station project. Gateway will assemble starting later this decade at a special orbit near the moon called Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit. JAXA plans multiple essential contributions to build out Gateway for missions to the lunar surface and beyond.

“We will join our American and other partners to create impressive achievements through Gateway in coming years,” explained JAXA Vice President Lisa Matsuda. “Our successful moon landing today foreshadows just the start of Japan’s advancing future in space.”

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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