Tokyo, 22 January 2024 (TDI): Japan’s lunar lander achieved a successful moon landing early Saturday, but a technical issue with the craft’s solar power capability now casts doubt on the mission’s overall success.
With the landing, Japan becomes just the fifth country to land a craft on the moon, after the US, Russia, China, and India.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency officials believe the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon spacecraft executed a soft landing and achieved its high-precision landing goal. However, confirmation of landing within 100 meters of the target site requires additional time.
“We think we have succeeded in executing a soft landing,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamanaka told a news conference at the agency’s Sagamihara campus held in the wee hours of the morning. “The data are continually sent to the Earth now after landing, which is evidence that our goal of a soft landing has been achieved.”
JAXA officials clarified the lander’s solar panels failed to generate power, relying on the onboard battery with limited hours.
Officials acknowledged that the lander’s activities may be limited due to the absence of electricity from solar panels. However, they emphasized their commitment to maximizing achievements with available power. The mission won’t conclude with the depletion of battery power; officials underscored this point.
Officials do not think the solar panels sustained damage during the landing. The spacecraft remains intact. They mentioned that as the sun’s angle shifts in the coming weeks, the panels may begin producing electricity.
Had the solar panels been working properly, the lander would have been able to operate for “several days,” before the panels suffered damage from the moon’s daytime temperatures, which can rise to about 100 degrees Celsius, the officials said.
Reporters, watching a Saturday morning livestream of the landing attempt, waited nearly two hours. Officials did not confirm the landing, only stating they were still working to confirm the spacecraft’s status.
JAXA’s Solar Challenge
At a news conference beginning just after 2 a.m. on Saturday, three JAXA executives appeared with somber expressions. They stated that they hadn’t identified the cause of the solar power issue yet.
Asked by a reporter to rate the mission’s performance, Hitoshi Kuninaka, director general of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), said: “I would give 60 points out of 100 we barely passed the test.”
Midnight on Saturday heightened tension as the spacecraft initiated its final descent, known as the “20 minutes of terror.” This marked the closely observed culmination of the spacecraft’s four-month journey to the moon.
At approximately 12:20 a.m., viewers worldwide witnessed the successful lunar landing of the spacecraft known as the ‘Moon Sniper.
Significance of the Mission
The moon touchdown provides a crucial boost to Japan’s space program. The moon, with one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, becomes a significant milestone. Japan’s space program faced setbacks, notably the H3 flagship rocket’s launch failure in March 2023. This success marks a turning point after a series of challenges.
Another JAXA official voiced optimism, hoping the mission inspires younger generations to aspire to great heights in their pursuits.
“To land on the moon is an extremely difficult challenge,” said Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of JAXA’s ISAS.
“I want children to tackle challenging projects such as this and pursue their interests.”