Japan is attempting to pull off a daring lunar landing mission on Friday, January 20th 2024 with a small, innovative spacecraft named SLIM. If successful, this would mark Japan’s first ever soft touchdown on the Moon’s surface.
Background Leading up to Launch
The Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) probe was developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to demonstrate precise landing capabilities using advanced optical and terrain recognition technology.
SLIM launched in February 2022 aboard an Epsilon rocket from the Uchinoura Space Center. After reaching an initial orbit around Earth, the spacecraft has spent the past two years maneuvering into the optimal trajectory and velocity to intercept the Moon’s path and make history for Japan’s space program.
The table below summarizes key parameters of the SLIM moon mission:
|Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM)
|February 18th, 2022
|Uchinoura Space Center, Japan
|1 year in lunar orbit, 6 months landed on surface
|Atlas Crater near Mare Frigoris on far side of Moon
Advanced Technologies Demonstrated
SLIM incorporates several advanced technologies that set it apart from previous lunar landers like NASA’s Apollo missions.
A high definition camera and lidar sensors precisely map the lunar terrain during descent, allowing the lander to autonomously adjust its flight path to reach an optimal landing target point free of boulders or steep slopes. This Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) technique reduces landing error to within 100 meters.
Once on the surface, SLIM can “hop” short distances using onboard thrusters and legs with shock absorbing capabilities. This mobility allows the lander to sample different locations and photograph surroundings beyond simply the initial landing spot.
These technologies could be applied to future lunar exploration craft as countries and companies aim to conduct extensive investigations across the Moon’s surface in the coming decade.
Final Preparations Before Lunar Arrival
Earlier this week on January 15th, SLIM lowered its orbit using small onboard thrusters to put itself on course for a precision lunar landing attempt on Friday. Everything is proceeding smoothly so far.
JAXA mission control has verified that all SLIM subsystems remain healthy, including power, communications, propulsion systems, and science instruments. The lander remains on target for arrival at the Atlas Crater region located on the far side of the Moon, facing away from Earth, at approximately 15:30 UTC on January 20th.
The site selection within Atlas Crater is a rocky highland area that should safely accommodate landing and provide interesting geological samples for analysis.
Landing Sequence Commences
On Friday morning Japan time, final preparations are underway as SLIM closes in on its destination after the long journey.
Approximately 1 hour before landing, the spacecraft will orient itself properly using small trajectory correction maneuvers. It will then begin carefully descending towards a pre-selected landing zone within the chosen Atlas Crater site.
Thrusters will slow the lander’s velocity to only a few kilometers per hour as it hovers 100 meters above the lunar surface. At this point, SLIM’s advanced navigation suite takes over – scanning and mapping the terrain below while automatically adjusting the descent trajectory to avoid any obstacles.
If all goes according to plan, SLIM will make a gentle vertical landing, cushioned by shock absorbing legs and protected within a protective carbon fiber shell.
Inside mission control, engineers are monitoring hundreds of spacecraft performance parameters via telemetry. SLIM must autonomously execute the landing sequence itself since Earth is over 300,000 km away – meaning round trip radio signals take 3 seconds. So any last minute adjustments must be made instantly on the fly by SLIM’s onboard computers.
It will be an anxious few minutes as the team awaits confirmation that their bold moon sniper has successfully touched down intact.
Next Steps if Soft Landing Succeeds
Upon a successful landing, the SLIM team can initially breathe a sigh of relief that the daring moonshot has paid off. But then operations quickly shift towards commissioning all science instruments and preparing the lander for an ambitious 6 month mission duration on the lunar surface.
The very first tasks are obtaining SLIM’s exact geographic coordinates with precision GPS receivers and snapping detailed photos of the surrounding terrain. These initial housekeeping duties confirm proper functioning of hardware after the stressful landing.
After checking out all equipment, controllers plan to complete the following major mission objectives:
- Analyze lunar soil at the landing site using a gamma ray spectrometer and wide spectrum cameras to determine chemical composition.
- Search for water ice or hydrated minerals in the crater’s permanently shadowed regions. Evidence of H20 on the Moon would be a huge discovery.
- Use ground-penetrating radar to map subsurface features under the lander, probing at least 10 meters deep.
- Robotically scoop soil samples from at least 3 different locations up to 50 meters away to assess geological diversity.
- Demonstrate the mobility of SLIM by executing 3 short ballistic hops to nearby areas of interest.
The science data collected will greatly expand our understanding of the Moon’s topology and composition – even on the far side which remains more mysterious.
If SLIM continues functioning longer than 6 months as hoped, the probe may attempt short distance trips to investigate the permanently shadowed regions of Atlas Crater searching for water ice. This ambitious objective would further push the limits of what a small, nimble robotic explorer can achieve.
Legacy of Lunar Exploration Continues
SLIM represents the vanguard of a new wave of advanced lunar landers. The mission’s innovations provide a technological template for more expansive robotic – and eventually human – exploration across the Lunar surface. Mastering pinpoint soft landings and mobile science operations enables detailed lunar investigations not previously possible.
As seen this month alone, SLIM is not the only Moon mission attempting to create history in early 2024. Rival nations have lunar spacecraft launch plans of their own this year as countries advance their space programs. Earlier in January, Russia aimed (but failed) to resume its dormant Luna program while India and private SpaceX launches are imminent. China meanwhile continues augmenting its robotic Chang’e lunar explorers currently operating on the ground.
In summary, from multiple countries and companies around the globe, 2024 promises a renaissance in humanity’s return to Earth’s celestial neighbor after years of relative quiet. Japan and SLIM however are poised to claim the first successful soft lunar landing this year if its intrepid Moon Sniper can ace its high stakes autonomous touchdown attempt in mere hours from now.
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