Japanese space module appears to have landed on the moon

Japanese space module “appears to have landed on the moon”

The Japanese space agency SLIM succeeded in attempting to land on the moon with unprecedented precision on the night from Friday to Saturday, said the Japanese space agency (Jaxa), which, however, tried to check the condition of the machine.

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The SLIM module (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon), which has been orbiting the rocky star since the end of December, had begun its descent around twenty minutes earlier at a speed of around 1,700 meters per second.

According to telemetry data, “SLIM appears to have landed on the moon. We are checking its status,” Jaxa official Shin Toriumi said during a live broadcast.

This small unmanned spacecraft (2.4 m long, 1.7 m wide and 2.7 m high) was intended to land not only on the moon, but also within a radius of 100 meters from its target, with this radius being considered a high measurement in terms of precision. Hence his nickname “Moon Sniper”.

It is common for lunar vehicles to land several kilometers away from their destination, which can complicate their exploration missions. And landing on the moon is more difficult than landing on asteroids – a feat that Jaxa, among others, has already achieved – because the gravity on the moon is stronger than on small celestial bodies.

Precisely landing on the moon is “a huge challenge” for SLIM, Emily Brunsden, director of the Astrocampus at the University of York, told AFP.

The precision of the “Sniper” represents “a huge technological advance that will enable the design of missions aimed at answering much more specific research questions.”

But this feat is “extraordinarily technologically difficult.” “Usually there is only one chance, so even the smallest mistake can lead to mission failure,” she warns.

SLIM was intended to land in a small crater less than 300 meters in diameter called Shioli, from where the machine should be able to conduct soil analysis of rocks believed to come from the lunar mantle, the internal structure of the Moon Earth's natural satellites are still very little known.

A partner toy manufacturer

These rocks “are crucial for studying the origins of the Moon and Earth,” Tomokatsu Morota, a lecturer at the University of Tokyo who specializes in space exploration, told AFP.

SLIM carries a spherical probe barely larger than a tennis ball that can change shape to move around the lunar surface. It was developed by Jaxa in collaboration with Japanese toy giant Takara Tomy.

This Japanese mission also aims to advance exploration of water resources on the Moon, a key issue as the United States and China ultimately intend to establish inhabited bases there.

The presence of water ice has been detected at the bottom of craters in the moon's polar regions, which is now attracting attention.

Permanent challenge

The success of the SLIM mission would allow Japan to “show its presence in the space domain,” Mr. Morota also recalled.

More than 50 years after man's first steps on the moon by Americans in 1969, it has once again become the subject of a global race in which the rivalry between the US and China plays a central role.

But many other countries and private companies are also interested, such as Russia, which dreams of regaining the space glory of the USSR through a partnership, particularly with China or India, which was successful last summer. most recently his first moon landing.

Japan's first two attempts to land on the moon failed.

In 2022, the Jaxa mini-probe Omotenashi (“hospitality” in Japanese), which was aboard the American Artemis-1 mission, suffered a fatal battery failure shortly after it was ejected into space.

And in April 2023, a lander from the young private Japanese company ispace crashed on the lunar surface after failing the soft descent.

Reaching the moon remains a huge technological challenge even for the major space powers: The private American company Astrobotic, acting on behalf of NASA, announced on Thursday that its Peregrine lander was intentionally lost and probably disintegrated during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere before it achieved his goal objective.

NASA has also postponed the next two missions of its major return program to the moon Artemis by almost a year to September 2025 and September 2026.