Japan’s ispace Admits Moon Lander Likely Crashed

The first ever attempt by a private company to land on the moon has not succeeded, after Japan’s ispace said it had lost contact with its Hakuto-R Mission 1 (M1) lander.

Earlier this week ispace was preparing to ‘soft-land’ its M1 lunar lander on the moon – defined as one which avoids damage to the lander – by slowing it down from nearly 6,000km/hour (3,700 mph).

Since last month, its module had been in orbit at an altitude of 100km over above the Moon, and the M1 lander, standing 2.3 metres tall and weighing 340 kilogrammes, was set to begin its hour-long landing procedure on Tuesday afternoon.

Image credit: ispace

Crash landed

But in a status update issued soon afterwards, ispace admitted that it had lost contact with the M1 lander and it likely crashed landed in a ‘hard’ landing on the lunar surface, after it unexpectedly accelerated.

The firm said that at 8am JST (midnight UK time) “communication between the lander and the Mission Control Center was lost, although it was expected even after the touchdown, and it has been determined that Success 9 of the Mission Milestones is not achievable.”

The HAKUTO-R Mission Control Center in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, confirmed that the lander had been in a vertical position as it had carried out the final approach to the lunar surface.

But as the lander neared the surface, ispace engineers monitored the estimated remaining propellant reaching a “lower threshold shortly afterward the descent speed rapidly increased.”

Conceptual illustration of ispace lunar landing. Image credit: ispace

The Japanese space startup said that after that, the communication loss happened.

The firm said it was possible that as the lander approached the moon, its altitude measurement system had miscalculated the distance to the surface.

“Based on this, it has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander eventually made a hard landing on the Moon’s surface,” said ispace, adding that its engineers are currently working on a detailed analysis of the telemetry data acquired until the end of landing sequence and will clarify the details after completing the analysis.

“For Mission 1, it has been determined that Success 9 of the Mission 1 Milestones, successfully landing on the Moon and establishing communications, is no longer achievable,” said the firm. “It is strongly believed that this is a great leap forward to future lunar exploration and an important milestone to advance space development by the private sector toward the next level not only in Japan but also the world.”

Successful failure

“Although we do not expect to complete the lunar landing at this time, we believe that we have fully accomplished the significance of this mission, having acquired a great deal of data and experience by being able to execute the landing phase,” said Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace.

“What is important is to feed this knowledge and learning back to Mission 2 and beyond so that we can make the most of this experience,” said Hakamada. “To this end, we are already developing Mission 2 and Mission 3 concurrently and have prepared a foundation that can maintain this continuity.”

ispace had been planning a landing on the edge of Mare Frigoris, in the Moon’s northern hemisphere, where the M1 had been expected to deploy a two-wheeled basedball-sized rover developed by Japan’s space agency JAXA, Japanese toymaker Tomy and Sony, as well as the United Arab Emirates’ “Rashid” rover.

In addition ispace wanted to monitor the performance of an experimental solid-state battery on board the M1 made by NGK Spark Plug, among other objects.

“Today, ispace’s HAKUTO-R” Mission 1 became the first private company to attempt to land on the Moon, but unfortunately, the landing could not be realised, added Hiroshi Yamakawa, President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). “As a fellow Japanese space enthusiast, I am proud of ispace’s challenge and respect the efforts of everyone involved.”

“ispace will analyse the data obtained from this mission and use it as a foundation for the next mission,” said Yamakawa. “JAXA will continue to make steady progress together with ispace, the industry and organisations challenging space, and our international partners, and will contribute not only to space exploration activities but also to the sustainable development of human society.”

Risky business

Only the US, the former Soviet Union and China have soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon.

Recent attempts by India and private Israeli firm SpaceIL ended in failure.

Japan has set itself a goal of sending Japanese astronauts to the moon by the late 2020s, but has had some recent setbacks. The Japanese national space agency last month had to destroy its new medium-lift H3 rocket upon reaching space after its second-stage engine failed to ignite. Its solid-fuel Epsilon rocket also failed after launch in October.

In a second mission planned for next year ispace is planning to attempt another lunar landing and the deployment of its own rover, while from 2025 it is to work with US space lab Draper to bring NASA payloads to the Moon.

The firm wants to build a permanently staffed lunar colony by 2040.

The ispace failed landing is the second ‘successful failure’ for commercial space travel in the space of a week.

Last week SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded spectacularly four minutes after soaring off its launch pad, which SpaceX labelled as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”.

Starship and Super Heavy on the launchpad. Image credit: SpaceX

But that launch was considered a success in many ways, and Elon Musk congratulated the SpaceX team and said the test launch of Starship would provide valuable insight for the next launch in a few months.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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