A Japanese company has lost contact with a small robotic spacecraft it was sending to the moon, hinting at a possible collision with the lunar surface.
After firing its main engine, the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, built by the Japanese company Ispace, slid out of lunar orbit. About an hour later, at 12:40 p.m. ET, the lander, which is 7.5 feet high, was expected to touch down in the Atlas Crater, a 54-mile-wide feature in the northeast quadrant of the moon’s near side.
But after the time of landing, no signal was received from the spacecraft. In a live video broadcast by the company, a speck of silence enveloped the Tokyo control room as Ispace engineers, mostly young men and from around the world, looked anxiously at their screens.
“At the moment, we have not been able to confirm the successful landing on the moon,” Takeshi Hakamada, CEO of Ispace, said half an hour after the scheduled landing.
Thus, he said, they had to assume that the loss of communications meant “we can’t complete the moon landing.”
The Ispace lander could be the first step toward a new paradigm of space exploration, in which governments, research institutions and companies send science experiments and other cargo to the moon.
The start of this lunar transfer transition to other companies will now have to wait for later this year. Two commercial landers, built by US companies and funded by NASA, are scheduled to be launched on the lunar surface in the coming months.
In an interview, Mr. Hakamada said he was “very, very proud” of the outcome though. He said, “I’m not disappointed.”
The spacecraft launched in December and took a circuitous but energy-efficient trajectory to the Moon, entering lunar orbit in March. Over the past month, engineers have been checking the lander’s systems before embarking on a landing attempt.
Once the engine was fired, the spacecraft would either crash-land or crash today. He did not have the ability to return to a higher orbit for another attempt later. Something seems to be wrong.
Mr. Hakamada said Ryo Oji, Ispace’s chief technology officer, told him there was communication with the spacecraft all the way to the surface. “However, our engineers still need to investigate in more detail what happened around the landing,” he said. Otherwise, we cannot confirm anything.
He said he couldn’t say whether the data indicated something was wrong in the final moments. “Unfortunately, I don’t have an update yet,” Mr. Hakamada said.
With the data obtained from the spacecraft, he said, the company will be able to apply the “lessons learned” on its next two missions.
NASA launched the Lunar Commercial Payload Service Program in 2018, because buying special spacecraft and equipment flights to the Moon promises to be cheaper than building its own vehicles. In addition, NASA hopes to stimulate a new commercial industry around the moon, and competition among lunar companies is likely to drive down costs. The program is built in part on a similar effort that has successfully provided transportation to and from the International Space Station.
But so far, NASA doesn’t have much to show for its efforts. The first two missions later in the year, by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines of Houston, are behind schedule, and some of the companies NASA has selected to bid for CLPS missions have already gone out of business.
Ispace is planning a second mission using a lander of roughly the same design next year. In 2026, a larger Ispace lander is slated to carry NASA payloads to the far side of the Moon as part of a CLPS mission led by Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Two countries – Japan and the United Arab Emirates – may have lost payloads on the lander. The Japanese space agency JAXA wanted to test a two-wheeled transformable lunar robot, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai sent a small spacecraft to explore the landing site. Each was their countries first robotic explorer on the moon.
Other payloads included an NGK Spark Plug solid-state battery test unit, an artificial intelligence-powered flight computer and 360-degree cameras from Canadensys Aerospace.
During the space race more than 50 years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union successfully sent robotic spacecraft to the lunar surface. Recently, China has landed an intact spacecraft three times on the surface of the moon.
However, other attempts failed.
Beresheet, an effort by SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organization, crashed in April 2019 when a command sent to the spacecraft inadvertently shut down the main engine, causing the spacecraft to plummet to its destruction.
Eight months later, India’s Vikram probe veered off course about a mile above the surface while trying to land, and then it was quiet.
If the Ispace probe crashes, it may take some time for the telemetry sent from the spacecraft to understand what happened. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has finally located the crash sites of Beresheet and Vikram, and may also be able to find M1’s resting place in Atlas crater.
Ispace isn’t the only private space company that has struggled in the first few months of 2023. New rocket models made by SpaceX, ABL Space Systems, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Relativity have failed during their first-ever flights, though some have made it to space. more than others. . Virgin Orbit’s last rocket launch fails and the company later declares bankruptcy, though it continues to work toward another launch.
At the same time, launch frequency is higher than ever, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket having dozens of successful liftoffs so far in 2023. The Arianespace rocket has also sent an ESA probe on a mission to Jupiter.
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