Japan’s lunar lander likely crashed, says Ispace
A Japanese company has lost contact with a small robotic spacecraft it was sending to the moon. Analysis of vehicle data suggests that it ran out of propellant on its final approach and instead of landing softly, it crashed into the lunar surface.
After igniting its main engine, Japan’s Ispace-built Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander exited lunar orbit. About an hour later, at 12:40 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, the lander, about 7.5 feet tall, was expected to land in Atlas Crater, a 54-mile-wide feature in the quadrant northeast of the near side of the moon.
But after the landing time, no signal was received from the spacecraft. In live video broadcast by the company, a shroud of silence shrouded the control room in Tokyo where Ispace engineers, mostly young and from around the world, stared at their screens with worried expressions.
In a statement released Wednesday morning in Japan, the company reported that Ispace engineers observed that the estimated remaining thruster was “at the lower threshold and soon after, the descent rate rapidly increased.”
In other words, the spacecraft ran out of fuel and fell.
Communications with the spacecraft were then lost. “Based on this, it has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander ultimately made a hard landing on the surface of the Moon,” the company said.
An investigation will now have to determine why the spacecraft apparently misjudged its altitude. Analysis suggests he was still high when he should have been on the ground.
In an interview, Takeshi Hakamada, the general manager of Ispace, nevertheless said he was “very, very proud” of the result. “I’m not disappointed,” he said.
With data obtained from the spacecraft, the company will be able to apply “lessons learned” to its next two missions, Hakamada said.
The Hakuto-R spacecraft launched in December and took a circuitous but energy-efficient path to the moon, entering lunar orbit in March. For the past month, engineers have been checking the lander’s systems before proceeding with the landing attempt.
The Ispace lander could have been the first step towards a new paradigm of space exploration, with governments, research institutes and corporations sending scientific experiments and other cargo to the Moon.
The start of this lunar transport transition will now have to wait for other companies later this year. Two commercial landers, built by American companies and funded by NASA, are expected to be launched on the Moon in the coming months.
NASA established its Commercial Lunar Payload Service, or CLPS, program in 2018 because buying trips on private spacecraft for instruments and equipment to the moon promises to be cheaper than building them. of its own vehicles. Additionally, NASA hopes to stimulate a new commercial industry around the moon, and competition between lunar companies will likely drive costs down further. The program was modeled in part on a similar effort that successfully provided transportation to and from the International Space Station.
So far, however, NASA has little to show for its efforts. The first two missions later this year, by Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology and Houston’s Intuitive Machines, are years behind schedule, and some of the companies NASA selected to bid on the CLPS missions have already gone out of business.
Ispace is planning a second mission using a lander of almost the same design next year. In 2026, a larger Ispace lander is to carry NASA payloads to the far side of the moon as part of a CLPS mission led by the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.
Two nations – Japan and the United Arab Emirates – lost payloads aboard the lander. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, wanted to test a transformable two-wheeled lunar robot, and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai sent a small rover to explore the landing site. Each would have been this country’s first robotic explorer on the lunar surface.
Other payloads included a test module for a solid-state battery from NGK Spark Plug Company, an artificial intelligence flight computer and 360-degree cameras from Canadensys Aerospace.
During their space race more than 50 years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union both successfully sent robotic spacecraft to the surface of the moon. More recently, China landed an intact spacecraft on the Moon three times.
However, other attempts failed.
Beresheet, an effort by SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, crashed in April 2019 when a command sent to the spacecraft inadvertently shut down the main engine, causing the spacecraft to plummet to destruction.
Eight months later, India’s Vikram lander veered off course about a mile above the surface during its attempted landing, then quieted down.
If the Ispace lander crashed, it could take a while to figure out from the telemetry sent back by the spacecraft to figure out what happened. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was finally able to spot the Beresheet and Vikram crash sites, and may also find M1’s resting place in the Atlas Crater.
Ispace isn’t the only private space company struggling in the first few months of 2023. New rocket designs built by SpaceX, ABL Space Systems, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Relativity failed on their first flights, even though some have gone further into space than others. . Virgin Orbit’s last rocket launch failed and the company subsequently declared bankruptcy, although it continues to work for another launch.
Meanwhile, launch frequency is higher than ever, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket having made dozens of successful liftoffs so far in 2023. An Arianespace rocket has also sent a European Space Agency probe into mission to Jupiter.
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