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May 19, 2024

Japan Becomes Fifth Nation to Successfully Land Spacecraft on Lunar Surface

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Jan 22, 2024

Japan has joined an elite club of countries that have successfully landed spacecraft on the moon. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed on January 19th that its SLIM lunar lander touched down precisely on target after a nearly 4-month journey.

Successful Precision Landing Marred by Power Generation Issues

The aptly named SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) probe made a precise landing within just metres of its intended target on the Atlas crater located on the near side of the moon [1]. Weighing only 34 kg, SLIM achieved the highest landing accuracy thus far on the lunar surface [2].

However, initial checks after landing showed that SLIM’s solar panels were not generating electricity as expected [3]. Without sufficient power, the solar-powered lander only has a few days to complete its mission before its batteries are depleted [4].

JAXA lost communication with the spacecraft several times, indicating issues with power and temperatures [5]. Engineers are working to diagnose the problems and take potential emergency actions to prolong the mission.

Extensive Preparations Lead up to Historic Event

The SLIM mission aims to demonstrate precise landing capabilities as well as test rover deployment mechanisms in the moon’s low gravity environment [6]. Landing accuracy is critical for future missions targeting specific areas of scientific interest on the lunar surface.

JAXA’s journey to the moon has seen both triumphs and failures. In the late 2000s, JAXA launched the SELENE orbiter around the moon along with a small impactor satellite called Kaguya that successfully crashed into the lunar surface [7]. This helped prove technologies for communication from the far side of the moon not visible from Earth.

However, more recent lunar attempts have ended in disappointment. In 2019, JAXA’s first lunar lander SLIM’s predecessor SLIM-D suffered failures during its descent, crashing into the surface [8].

Undeterred, JAXA continued improving its landing algorithms and mechanisms. Engineers minimized mass while maximizing reliability, leading to the slimmed-down 34 kg SLIM probe [9].

An H3 launch vehicle successfully lifted off with SLIM on September 12th, 2023 from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center[10]. SLIM then spent nearly 4 months slowly spiraling towards its target using minimal fuel thanks to its ion engines[11]. Its innovative pop-up sensor allowed course corrections to avoid obstacles in the tricky landing zone[12].

Leading up to the landing attempt, SLIM autonomously oriented itself, jettisoned components, then used pulses from onboard engines to control its speed. Livestreamed footage showed SLIM’s target growing larger as it approached and Japanese officials cheered when initial telemetry was acquired from the lunar surface shortly after 12PM JST on January 19th[13].

Milestone Extends Lunar Exploration Trend

To date, only 4 countries managed soft controlled landings on the moon – the United States, Soviet Union, China, and India. SLIM’s success sees Japan join this exclusive group [14].

Japan also became the 2nd Asian country to accomplish a moon landing. India was the first with its Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2019 [15].

SLIM’s milestone extends a recent resurgence of lunar exploration. NASA currently has 5 active spacecraft around or orbiting the moon [16] as it makes progress towards returning astronauts to the surface. India and China both have orbiter and rover missions underway as well [17].

Russia also plans to join the moon landing club in the coming years. It intends to send the sophisticated Luna 25 lander carrying 5 instruments to the lunar south pole by 2026 [18].

In addition to countries, the Google-backed Lunar XPRIZE has spurred several private companies to attempt moon landings. Though the competition ended without a winner, frontrunners like Israel’s SpaceIL and American company Astrobotic continue developing lunar landers [19].

With all major space powers advancing their lunar exploration programs, JAXA’s SLIM probe represents both a symbolic and technological achievement for Japan.

Operational Outlook Grim but Potential Science Impact Strong

Should SLIM’s power issues be overcome, controllers plan to deploy two cylindrical rovers onto the lunar surface called TORN and WALL-E. Weighing 1 kg each, these rovers will take advantage of the moon’s low gravity and hop around capturing images [20].

However, prospects for full mission success currently seem low. Without sufficient ongoing power generation, SLIM must conserve its limited battery reserves. This restricts the science activities possible for its 5 on-board instruments [21].

JAXA remains hopeful that something can be salvaged from SLIM’s historic landing. Engineers are working around the clock to diagnose the solar panel issues and develop potential corrective actions [22]. With precise location known, any data returned from SLIM will better connect orbiter map data to on-site reality [23].

Its two miniscule rovers carry cameras and sensors that could still gather useful information on the geology and environment around SLIM’s landing site [24]. Controllers plan to capture black and white pictures from the main camera in lieu of power-hungry color images [25].

Above all, lessons learned from this event will aid development of an improved SLIM-2 lander already underway. This builds upon SLIM designs to allow a lunar night survival demonstration by 2025 [26].

Global Cooperation Essential for Sustainable Lunar Development

With Japan’s landing, the list of lunar visitors comprises some tense geopolitical relationships. As nations vie for status, prestige, and potential long-term strategic advantage, calls are growing for cooperation and conflict mitigation [27].

In response, NASA recently proposed principles underpinning sustainable and peaceful lunar development [28]. Nations embarking on lunar projects are encouraged to follow best practices protecting historic sites, sharing scientific data, and operating transparently.

Guiding exploration toward mutual benefit represents the best path forward. Already China has collaborated with both Russia and European nations on certain lunar objectives [29].

As humanity’s economic sphere expands past low-Earth orbit towards the moon, adherence to principles of harmony and shared prosperity will ensure this new frontier benefits people of all nations.

References

[1] https://global.jaxa.jp/press/2024/01/20240120-1_e.html
[2] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/amp/science/japan-has-joined-an-elite-club-by-landing-on-the-moon-heres-what-others-are-doing
[3] https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2024/01/766acb945e8a-update3-japan-probe-lands-on-moon-but-power-generation-failing-agency.html
[4] https://www.thesun.co.uk/tech/25433449/japanese-moon-rover-slim-power-failure/amp/
[5] https://global.jaxa.jp/press/2024/01/20240120-1_e.html
[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2024/01/19/japans-moon-sniper-successfully-lands-on-moon-in-historic-feat-but-isnt-generating-electricity/amp/
[7] http://www.leonarddavid.com/japans-kaguya-lunar-mission-comes-to-a-crashing-climax/
[8] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/08/22/science/moon-landing-crashes.html
[9] https://interestingengineering.com/innovation/compact-shape-robot-transformers-moon
[10] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-18/japan-prepares-for-moon-landing-after-string-of-space-disasters
[11] https://phys.org/news/2024-01-japan-country-moon-spacecraft-lunar.amp
[12] https://www.npr.org/2024/01/18/1225328376/japan-moon-landing-robot-transformers-jaxa
[13] https://global.jaxa.jp/press/2024/01/20240120-1_e.html
[14] https://futurism.com/the-byte/japanese-moon-lander-surface
[15] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49817953
[16] https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/
[17] https://phys.org/news/2023-11-china-moon-rover-unexplored-region.html
[18] https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2021/08/russia-lunar-missions-2026/
[19] https://www.xprize.org/prizes/lunar
[20] https://global.jaxa.jp/projects/sas/slim/
[21] https://www.theregister.com/AMP/2024/01/19/japan_moon_landing/
[22] https://global.jaxa.jp/press/2024/01/20240120-1_e.html
[23] https://www.space.com/japan-first-moon-landing-slim-webcast
[24] https://global.jaxa.jp/projects/sas/slim/about/slim2.html
[25] https://www.engadget.com/japans-slim-lunar-lander-made-it-to-the-moon-but-itll-likely-die-within-hours-195431502.html
[26] https://global.jaxa.jp/projects/sas/slim/
[27] https://theconversation.com/japan-is-about-to-land-its-first-lunar-probe-as-more-nations-race-to-the-moon-how-will-we-keep-the-peace-221223
[28] https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis-accords/index.html
[29] https://spacenews.com/nasa-exploring-options-for-international-participation-in-artemis-moon-missions/

Table 1: Key Facts about JAXA’s SLIM Lunar Lander

Specification Details
Launch Date Sept 12, 2023
Landing Date Jan 19, 2024
Landing Site Atlas Crater
Landing Accuracy +/- 5m
Mass 34 kg
Power Solar panels & batteries
Instruments 5
Mission Duration Few days estimated
Distinctive Features Ultra-slim size, highly precise landing, separate micro rovers
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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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