TOKYO (AP) — Japan became the fifth country in history to reach the moon after one of its spacecraft, without astronauts, successfully made a soft landing on the moon’s surface early Saturday morning.
But space officials said they needed more time to analyze whether the Smart Lunar Lander (SLIM) achieved its mission priority of a pinpoint landing. He also said the spacecraft’s solar panels may not be able to generate electricity, potentially cutting its time on the moon.
Hitoshi Kuninaka, director of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, a division of Japan’s space agency, said space officials believe the SLIM small probe launched as planned and is transmitting data to Earth.
But he said SLIM’s solar cells were not producing electricity and had only a few hours left in their battery life. He said the priority is for the spacecraft to use its remaining batteries to collect as much data as possible about the landing and the moon.
Japan will follow the United States, Soviet Union, China and India to reach the moon.
Kuninaka said he believed Japan’s space program had at least a “marginal” success.
SLIM landed on the moon around 12:20 a.m. Saturday (Tokyo time) (3:20 p.m. Friday).
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency controllers initially announced that the SLIM was on the lunar surface but were still “confirming its status,” and were nervously awaiting news. No further details were released until a press conference nearly two hours later.
For the mission to be considered a complete success, space officials needed to confirm that SLIM made a pinpoint landing. Kuninaka said more time was needed, but he personally thought it had the best chance of being achieved, based on observations of data showing the spacecraft’s movement leading up to landing and its ability to send signals after landing. Stated. He said the solar panels may not be at the planned angle, but there is still hope.
Despite the solar panel issue, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a message posted on promised support.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also praised the SLIM landing in an X message, congratulating Japan on becoming “historically the fifth country to successfully land on the moon!” We value our partnership in space and our continued collaboration on the U.S.-led multinational Artemis moon exploration.
Intended to attack very small targets, SLIM is a lightweight spacecraft about the size of a passenger car. It used “pinpoint landing” technology that promised far greater control than previous moon landings.
Most previous spacecraft used landing zones around 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide, but SLIM was aiming at a target just 100 meters (330 feet) wide.
Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said the landing with such precision would be the first of its kind in the world and would be a crucial technology for a sustainable, long-term and accurate space exploration system. Stated.
Yamakawa said Japan needs technology to secure its place and contribute to international space projects.
This project is the result of 20 years of precision engineering by JAXA.
The space agency known as JAXA said SLIM, nicknamed “Moon Sniper,” began its descent late Saturday night and descended to about 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the moon’s surface within 15 minutes.
According to JAXA, at an altitude of 5 kilometers (3 miles) the lander was in vertical descent mode, then 50 meters (165 feet) above the ground, the SLIM was to translate in parallel to find a safe landing site. That’s what it means.
JAXA said the spacecraft was testing technology that would allow lunar exploration to land “where we want, rather than where it’s easy to land.” The spacecraft was also supposed to look for clues about the moon’s origins, including analyzing minerals with a special camera.
Slim was equipped with shock-absorbing pads on each of its five legs, and was aiming to land near Shiori Crater, an area covered in volcanic rock.
The closely watched mission came just 10 days after a private U.S. company’s moon mission failed when the spacecraft developed a fuel leak just hours after liftoff.
SLIM was launched on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H2A rocket in September. It initially orbited the Earth, but entered lunar orbit on December 25th.
Japan wants to regain trust in space technology after a number of failures. In April, a spacecraft designed by a Japanese company crashed during an attempt to land on the moon, and in March, a new workhorse rocket failed on its first launch.
JAXA has a track record of difficult landings. The Hayabusa2 spacecraft, launched in 2014, landed twice on the 900-meter (3,000-foot) asteroid Ryugu, collecting samples and bringing them back to Earth.
A successful pinpoint landing using SLIM, especially on the moon, would raise Japan’s profile in the global space technology race.
Takeshi Tsuchiya, a professor of aeronautics at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering, said it was important to confirm the accuracy of landing in the target area.
“To properly assert Japan’s position in lunar development, Japan needs to demonstrate to the world that it has the appropriate technology,” he said. He said the moon is important from a resource exploration perspective and could also be used as a base to go to other planets like Mars.
Experts say Japan needs to prove consistency in precision landing technology to gain a competitive edge.
SLIM was carrying two small autonomous rovers, the Lunar Explorers LEV-1 and LEV-2, which officials said appeared to have been released shortly before landing.
LEV-1, equipped with an antenna and a camera, is tasked with recording SLIM landings. LEV-2 is a ball-shaped rover equipped with two cameras, developed by JAXA in collaboration with Sony, toy manufacturer Takara Tomy, and Doshisha University.
Ayaka McGill contributed to this report.