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Japan craft lands on moon, scientists await contact

Japan’s space agency has said it was examining communication with its probe after it landed on the moon, during an attempt to become the world’s fifth country to achieve a moonshot.

“From the screen it appears the SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) has landed on the moon. We are checking the status,” JAXA official Shin Toriumi said during a live broadcast.

JAXA said the SLIM landed on the moon’s surface at around 12.20am local time (3.20pm Irish time) but it was still confirming the communication with the probe.

If confirmed, Japan will become the world’s fifth country to put a spacecraft on the moon after the US, the former Soviet Union, China and India.

Dubbed the “moon sniper”, SLIM attempted to land within 100 metres (328 feet) of its target, versus the conventional accuracy of several kilometres.

JAXA said this landing technology will become a powerful tool in future exploration of hilly moon poles seen as a potential source of oxygen, fuel and water – factors necessary to sustain life.

It will take up to a month to verify whether SLIM had achieved the high-precision goals, JAXA has said.

A graphic of the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon craft

Japan is increasingly looking to play a bigger role in space, partnering with ally the US to counter China.

Japan is also home to several private-sector space start-ups and the JAXA aims to send an astronaut to the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program in the next few years.

But the Japanese space agency has recently faced multiple setbacks in rocket development, including the launch failure last March of its new flagship rocket H3 that was meant to match cost-competitiveness against commercial rocket providers like SpaceX.

The failure caused widespread delays in Japan’s space missions, including SLIM and a joint lunar exploration with India, which in August made a historic touchdown on the moon’s south pole with its Chandrayaan-3 probe.

JAXA has twice landed on small asteroids, but unlike with an asteroid landing, the moon’s gravity means the lander cannot pull up for another try, its scientists said.

Three lunar missions by Japanese start-up ispace, Russia’s space agency and American company Astrobotic have failed in the past year.

No private company has achieved a soft landing on the moon’s surface.

SLIM’s successful touchdown and demonstration of the precision landing “will help Japan to keep its technology advanced at a very high level in the world,” Ritsumeikan University professor Kazuto Saiki said before the touchdown attempt.

Prof Saiki developed SLIM’s near-infrared camera that will analyse moon rocks after the touchdown.

The 2.4 metre by 1.7 metre by 2.7 metre vehicle includes two main engines with 12 thrusters, surrounded by solar cells, antennas, radar and cameras.

Keeping it lightweight was another objective of the project, as Japan aims to carry out more frequent missions in the future by reducing launch costs.

SLIM weighs 700 kilograms at launch, less than half of India’s Chandrayaan-3.

As the probe descends onto the surface, it recognises where it is flying by matching its camera’s images with existing satellite photos of the moon.

This “vision-based navigation” enables a precise touchdown, JAXA said.

Shock absorbers make contact with the lunar surface in what JAXA called new “two-step landing” method, the rear parts touch the ground first, then the entire body gently collapses forward and stabilises.

The precision landing “won’t be a game changer”, but the cost-reduction effects of it and the lightweight probe manufacturing might open up moonshots to space organisations worldwide, said Bleddyn Bowen, a University of Leicester associate professor specialising in space policy.

“Not as big as the United States or the Soviet Union of old or China today in terms of scale, but in terms of capability and niche advanced technologies, Japan has always been there,” he said.

On landing, SLIM was due to deploy two mini-probes, a hopping vehicle as big as a microwave oven and a baseball-sized wheeled rover, that will take pictures of the spacecraft.

Techgiant Sony Group, toymaker Tomy and several Japanese universities jointly developed the robots.

SLIM was launched on Japan’s flagship H-IIA rocket in September and has taken a fuel-efficient four-month journey to the moon.

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