May 24, 2024

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Japanese “Moon Sniper” brings back images after the third long lunar night

Japanese “Moon Sniper” brings back images after the third long lunar night

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Japan's Moon Sniper lander has defied the odds for the third time, surviving a long, frigid lunar night despite not being designed to withstand such extreme conditions, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Temperatures during the lunar night can drop to -208 degrees Fahrenheit (-133 degrees Celsius), according to NASA. Moon Sniper was not expected to endure even a single lunar night, a period of darkness on the moon that lasts about two weeks.

The robotic rover, also known as SLIM, or Lunar Exploration Intelligent Lander, initially touched down on the lunar surface on January 19. This historic achievement made Japan the third country this century, and the fifth ever, to land on the moon. The spacecraft landed nearby Shiuli pitIt is located about 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the Sea of ​​Tranquility, an area close to the lunar equator, where the Apollo 11 mission first landed humans on the moon.

But things didn't quite go according to plan.

During landing, the spacecraft experienced an anomaly and landed on its nose, meaning its solar panels were facing west instead of upright and not receiving the sunlight needed to generate power. The lander had enough energy to send out a mosaic of images before stopping. The mission team in Japan remained optimistic that once sunlight reaches the solar panels again, the spacecraft might wake up again.

So far, the Moon Sniper, which earned its nickname due to precise technology that allowed it to land about 55 meters (180 feet) from its target, continues to pleasantly surprise the team with Waking up after every lunar nightAnd take new photos and send them again before it goes back to sleep mode. The rover's resilience to lunar fluctuations is unique among missions that have landed on the moon in the past year, and experts have some ideas about why that is.

The mission team contacted Moon Sniper on April 23 after the lander exited on its third lunar night. The spacecraft was able to send back more images of its landing site.

“The SLIM system maintained its basic function even after spending 3 nights on the moon, which was not expected in the design!” The team participated in Xformerly known as Twitter.

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From JAXA

The Moon Sniper spacecraft has captured a new image of its landing site, which appears bright during lunar day.

In addition to surviving the extreme cold of the lunar night, Moon Sniper also endured the scorching temperatures of the lunar day, which can reach 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius), according to NASA.

The team shared that it is closely monitoring the condition of SLIM in order to identify components of the spacecraft that could deteriorate over time while exposed to the moon's day and night environment.

JAXA engineers were careful about how to communicate with the SLIM when it first woke up, since the spacecraft operates at very high temperatures, which could overheat and damage the cameras. As a result, the mission team typically waits about a day after SLIM wakes up before ordering it to send images.

So far, one of SLIM's navigation cameras and the spacecraft's Star Tracker have provided images from the Moon Sniper experiment on the lunar surface. The Star Tracker is not an actual camera, and was instead used to measure the spacecraft's orientation by tracking the alignment of the stars as the lander traveled to the Moon. But the team took smart measures to make the most of Moon Sniper's shaky landing.

“It was not originally planned to be used on the lunar surface, but in principle it could take pictures just like a camera, which led to it being operated by 'secret orders,'” the agency shared on X.

The spacecraft has two navigation cameras mounted in different directions. Given how Moon Sniper landed, one of those cameras faces space, but the other has a view of the landing site from the spacecraft's perspective.

From JAXA

The spacecraft's Star Tracker captured an overexposed image of the north slope.

The sun set again near Shiuli Crater, and Moon Sniper went into hibernation again on April 29, according to the agency.

“We plan to try to resume operation again in mid-to-late May, when the SLIM solar cells start generating electricity. We appreciate your continued support,” the agency shared on X as Moon Sniper went to sleep again.

Members of the mission team recently composed a song in tribute to Moon Sniper's inspiring journey which they called “15 degree slopeThe song covers every step of the surprising mission, from launching and traveling to the moon to the unexpected landing and “resurrection awakening,” as shared by team members on X.

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The song borrows its name from the steep slope where the Moon Sniper was scheduled to land. Now, the mission team believes the slope on which Moon Sniper landed was about 10 degrees, which is still “surprisingly steep.”

The story of two moon landings

In February, Houston-based space exploration company Intuitive Machines landed its unmanned IM-1 mission, also known as Odysseus, on the moon's south pole, making it the unmanned mission. The first commercial spacecraft to land softly on the moon's surface and the first American-made vehicle to reach the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972. But like SLIM, the “Odie” mission had a bit of a lunar rollercoaster ride that included having to rely on experimental technology to land and eventually landing on the lunar surface. Her side.

On February 29, seven days after the operation, Odi went to sleep because he was not supposed to survive the lunar night. The Intuitive Machines team listened to Odie wake up in March, but the spacecraft never called home again.

“Odie was only designed to support its payloads, and none of them were capable of doing a lunar night, so we didn't design it for more,” said Jack Fisher, a former NASA astronaut and vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines. “There are measures we could have taken to allow for longer survival, but we focused on rapid economic support of our payloads, rather than a nation-state sponsored mission.”

The fact that ODI landed near the moon's south pole, while SLIM landed near the equator, could affect the possibility of surviving the lunar night, Fisher said.

“It still depends on the terrain, but the equator will generally have fewer issues with shadows and solar generation will be more productive (due to higher incidence angles) than Audi has seen at the South Pole,” he said.

Other factors that could increase survivability include maintaining a protected chemical battery, operating at extreme temperatures, and a design that can feed solar energy directly into the power system, both of which could be implemented in the future.

“Nighttime survival is critical to any effort to build meaningful infrastructure on the Moon, and IM is working on a range of options through experiments once the IM-3 mission is underway,” Fisher said. “Our goal is to first 'survive' the night when the spacecraft enters a kind of hibernation (like SLIM did) and wakes up on the other side. Ultimately, we want to 'thrive' through the night, and that's exactly what we're doing with the Lunar Terrain Vehicle program , where the vehicle can do useful work during the lunar night.

Fisher tipped JAXA for the continued success of its mission.

“Although I am not an expert on their vehicle design, it is quite an accomplishment that their spacecraft can survive three lunar nights, regardless of the conditions,” Fisher said.

Japan's success with the Moon Sniper is just one entry in a renewed race to land on the moon that has been underway over the past few years.

India became the fourth country to send a robotic mission to the moon in August 2023 when Chandrayaan-3 mission has landed Near the south pole of the moon. The Vikram lander and the six-wheeled Pragyan rover studied the Moon for about two weeks before turning off for the lunar night – but Attempts to wake them failed.

The push toward lunar exploration continues as China seeks to land a sample-collection mission on the moon's far side, or the side facing away from Earth, and NASA aims to establish a sustainable human presence at the moon's south pole through its ambitious Artemis program. .

The continued success of Moon Sniper comes during what Noah Petro, NASA's project scientist for both the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Artemis III, calls a “brilliant new era of lunar exploration.”

Six of the pioneering Apollo missions returned lunar samples from different landing sites on the Moon, but all were on the near side of the Moon. Exploring new lunar regions provides new windows to understanding Earth's satellite.

“For me, there is great joy in seeing missions landing on the moon,” Pietro said. “Every time we land on the surface, we learn more about this unique lunar environment we put ourselves in. Building this database of lunar knowledge about what it means to be and work on the Moon helps us better prepare for Artemis missions.