Despite last-minute engine issues, Japan’s “Moon Sniper” spacecraft completed a precise lunar landing, the space agency announced on Thursday along with the first mission photos.
A mini-rover captured an image of the yellow, boxy lander in tact, perched at a little inclination on the stony grey surface, with distant lunar hills rising in the background.
At the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) news conference on the Smart Lander for Investigating lunar (SLIM) lunar landing mission, in Tokyo, on January 25, 2024, journalists examine a screen displaying a picture captured by LEV-2 on the moon. KIM REUTERS / KYUNG-HOON
With its touchdown on Saturday, Japan joined the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and India as the only countries to have successfully completed a soft lunar landing.
The autonomous Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), sometimes known as the “Moon Sniper” due to its precision technology, was designed to land on a crater within a radius of 100 meters (330 ft) from a designated site.
Compared to the typical landing zone range, which experts estimate to be several kilometers, that is far more accurate.
“SLIM achieved a precise soft landing. The landing location is verified to be 55 meters from the intended point,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the country’s space agency, declared on Thursday.
SLIM’s project manager, Shinichiro Sakai, told reporters that the lander may have veered off course due to engine issues that occurred during its descent.
The craft was supposed to land significantly closer to its target before that.
The lightweight spacecraft’s solar batteries were also not producing electricity due to issues with them.
With only 12 percent of its power left, JAXA chose to turn off SLIM nearly three hours after impact in order to preserve it for potential reactivation when the sun’s angle changed.
The organization stated that given the craft’s solar cells are facing west, that may happen in as little as one week.
“Based on current estimates, we are preparing for the resumption of the probe’s operations by February 1,” said JAXA.
Before shutting down the probe, Mission Control was able to download visual and technical data from the lunar surface and during its descent.
The mission’s target was a crater thought to contain exposed surface mantle material, which is the moon’s normally deep inner layer under its crust.
In order to establish facilities there as potential stopovers on the route to Mars, JAXA plans to investigate the moon’s potential water supplies by examining its rocks.
On Saturday, two probes—one equipped with a transmitter and the other meant to roll across the lunar surface and broadcast photographs back to Earth—separated from SLIM with success.
This slightly larger than a tennis ball, shape-shifting mini-rover was co-developed by the company that makes the Transformer toys.
Fifty years after the first human moon landing, governments and private companies have launched other lunar missions, including SLIM.
However, there are many technological issues, and this month the US had two setbacks in its ambitious moon plans.
There have also been two failed Japanese lunar missions in the past, one private and one public.
As part of the US Artemis 1 mission, the nation sent the Omotenashi lunar probe in 2022, although it was an unsuccessful mission.
Japanese startup ispace made a fruitless attempt to land on the moon in April, losing contact with its ship following what it called a “hard landing.”