June 25, 2024

A Japanese company has lost contact with the small robotic spacecraft it sent to the moon. Analysis of data from the vehicle indicated that it ran out of propellant during its final approach, rather than landing softly on the lunar surface.

The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, built by Japan’s Ispace Corporation, detached from lunar orbit after its main engine ignited. About an hour later, at 12:40 p.m. ET Tuesday, the roughly 7.5-foot-tall lander is expected to touch down in Atlas Crater, a 54-mile-wide crater in the northeast quadrant of the near side of the Moon. crater.

But after landing, no signal from the spacecraft was received. In a live video streamed live by the company, silence envelops the Tokyo control room as Ispace engineers, mostly young, from around the world, watch their screens with concerned expressions.

In a statement released in Japan on Wednesday morning, the company reported that Ispace engineers observed that the estimated remaining propellant was “at a lower threshold, followed by a rapid increase in the rate of decline shortly thereafter.”

In other words, the spacecraft ran out of fuel and crashed.

Communication with the spacecraft was subsequently lost. “Based on this, it has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander will eventually land hard on the lunar surface,” the company said.

An investigation must now be conducted to determine why the spacecraft apparently misjudged its altitude. Analysis showed it was still aloft when it should be on the ground.

Still, he is “very, very proud” of the results, Ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada said in an interview. “I’m not disappointed,” he said.

Using the data obtained from the spacecraft, the company will be able to apply “lessons learned” to the next two missions, Mr Hakamada said.

The Hakuto-R spacecraft launched in December and entered lunar orbit in March, taking an orbital but energy-efficient path to the Moon. For the past month, engineers have been checking the lander’s systems before the landing attempt begins.

The Ispace lander could be the first step toward a new paradigm in space exploration, with governments, research institutions and companies sending science experiments and other cargo to the Moon.

The start of the lunar transit transition must now await other companies later this year. Two commercial landers built by US companies and funded by NASA are scheduled to launch to the moon in the coming months.

NASA established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program (CLPS) in 2018 because it was expected to be cheaper to buy a private spacecraft to deliver instruments and equipment to the Moon than to build its own vehicles. In addition, NASA hopes to spawn a new commercial industry around the moon, and competition among lunar companies could further drive down costs. The program is modeled in part on similar efforts that have successfully provided transportation to and from the International Space Station.

So far, however, NASA’s efforts have yielded little. Later this year, the first two missions, by Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology and Houston’s Intuitive Machines, are many years behind schedule, and some of the companies NASA chose to bid for CLPS missions have folded.

Ispace plans to conduct a second mission next year using a lander with a nearly identical design. In 2026, a larger Ispace lander will carry NASA payloads to the far side of the moon as part of the CLPS mission led by Draper Laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Two countries — Japan and the United Arab Emirates — lost payloads on the landers. Japan’s aerospace research and development agency JAXA wanted to test a two-wheeled transformable lunar robot, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai sent a small rover to explore the landing site. Each will be the country’s first robotic explorer on the lunar surface.

Other payloads include a solid-state battery test module from NGK Spark Plug, an artificial intelligence flight computer and a 360-degree camera from Canadensys Aerospace.

During the space race more than 50 years ago, both the United States and the Soviet Union successfully sent robotic spacecraft to the lunar surface. Recently, China has sent undamaged spacecraft to the moon three times.

However, other attempts have failed.

Beresheet, an effort by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, crashed in April 2019 when commands sent to the spacecraft inadvertently shut down the main engine, causing the spacecraft to crash.

Eight months later, India’s Vikram lander went off course about a mile above the surface during a touchdown attempt, then went quiet.

If the Ispace lander does crash, it may take some time to learn what happened from telemetry data sent back from the spacecraft. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will eventually be able to spot the crash sites of Beresheet and Vikram, and may also find the resting place of M1 in Atlas Crater.

Ispace isn’t the only private space company struggling in the first few months of 2023. Models of new rockets built by SpaceX, ABL Space Systems, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Relativity failed on their first flights, though some went farther than others. Virgin Orbit’s most recent rocket failed and the company later declared bankruptcy, Although it continues to struggle for another launch.

Meanwhile, launches are happening more frequently than ever, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launching dozens of times so far in 2023. The Arianespace rocket also sent the European Space Agency probe to Jupiter.

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