Japan becomes fifth nation to achieve a soft lunar landing

Space agency confirms due to a solar battery problem, its spacecraft was running out of power
A representational image. — YouTube screengrab
A representational image. — YouTube screengrab

Following Moon Sniper’s successful landing, Japan became only the fifth nation to achieve a soft lunar landing; however, due to a solar battery problem, its spacecraft was running out of power.

Space agency JAXA, after an intense 20-minute descent, said confirmed that its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) has touched down and communication had been established.

JAXA official Hitoshi Kuninaka said: The craft -- dubbed the ‘Moon Sniper’ for its precision technology -- would only have power for ‘several hours’.”

As mission control prioritised acquiring data while they could, Kuninaka suggested that once the sun's angle changed, the batteries might work again.

Addressing a press conference, he said: "It is unlikely that the solar battery has failed. It’s possible that it is not facing in the originally planned direction."

"If the descent was not successful, it would have crashed at a very high speed. If that were the case, all functionality of the probe would be lost," he said.

"But data is being sent to Earth."

It should be noted that SLIM is one of several new lunar missions launched by countries and private firms, 50 years after the first human Moon landing.

Crash landings, communication failures and other technical problems are rife, and only four other nations have made it to the Moon: the United States, the Soviet Union, China and most recently India.

NASA chief Bill Nelson tweeted his "congratulations (to Japan) on being the historic fifth country to land successfully on the Moon".

"We value our partnership in the cosmos and continued collaboration," he added.

The space agency hopes to analyse data acquired during the landing, which will help determine whether the craft achieved the aim of landing within 100 metres (yards) of its intended landing spot.

SLIM was aiming for a crater where the Moon’s mantle, the usually deep inner layer beneath its crust, is believed to be exposed on the surface.

JAXA said two probes detached successfully — one with a transmitter and another designed to trundle around the lunar surface beaming images to Earth.

This shape-shifting mini-rover, slightly bigger than a tennis ball, was co-developed by the firm behind the Transformer Toys.

While the accuracy of the touchdown needs to be verified, "I think the mission is a big success," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

He told AFP that several things could have caused the solar panel problem.

"A wire came loose, a wire was connected the wrong way, or the lander is upside down and can´t see the sun for some reason," McDowell speculated.

The scientist added that "hopefully" JAXA had been able to download the landing images, but an experiment to study the composition of local rocks may be a lost cause.

"But frankly, that experiment was a bonus and not that important to the mission," he said.