Japanese firm’s pioneering moon landing fails

Japanese firm’s pioneering moon landing fails

Ispace loses communication with Hakuto-R lunar lander, ending a mission that began more than four months ago

Science & Tech

A Japanese startup attempting the first private landing on the moon has lost communication with its spacecraft and said that it assumes the lunar mission had failed.

Ispace said that it could not establish communication with the uncrewed Hakuto-R lunar lander after its expected landing time, a frustrating end to a mission that began with a launch from the US more than four months ago.

“We have not confirmed communication with the lander,” a company official told reporters about 25 minutes after the expected landing on Wednesday.

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“We have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” the official said.

Officials said they would continue to try and establish contact with the spacecraft, which was carrying payloads from several countries, including a lunar rover from the United Arab Emirates.

Takeshi Hakamada, the Ispace founder and CEO, said after the apparent failed landing that the company had acquired data from the spacecraft all the way up to the planned landing and would be examining that for signs of what happened.

The lander, standing just over 2 metres (6.5 feet) tall and weighing 340 kg, has been in lunar orbit since last month. Its descent and landing was fully automated and it was supposed to reestablish communication as soon as it touched down.

So far only the US, Russia and China have managed to put a spacecraft on the lunar surface, all through government-sponsored programmes.

In April 2019, Israeli organisation SpaceIL watched its lander crash into the moon’s surface.

India also attempted to land a spacecraft on the moon in 2019, but it crashed.

Two US companies, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are scheduled to attempt moon landings later this year. “We congratulate the ispace inc team on accomplishing a significant number of milestones on their way to today’s landing attempt,” Astrobotic said in a tweet.

“We hope everyone recognises – today is not the day to shy away from pursuing the lunar frontier, but a chance to learn from adversity and push forward.”

Ispace, which listed its shares on the Tokyo stock exchange growth market earlier this month, was already planning its next mission before the failure of Hakuto-R.

The spacecraft, whose name references the moon-dwelling white rabbit in Japanese folklore, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on 11 December, on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

The lander carried several lunar rovers, including a round, baseball-sized robot jointly developed by Japan’s space agency and toy manufacturer Takara Tomy, the creator of the Transformer toys.

It also had the 10kg chair-sized Rashid rover developed by the United Arab Emirates, and an experimental imaging system from Canadensys Aerospace.

With just 200 employees, ispace has said it “aims to extend the sphere of human life into space and create a sustainable world by providing high-frequency, low-cost transportation services to the moon”.

Hakamada touted the mission as laying “the groundwork for unleashing the moon’s potential and transforming it into a robust and vibrant economic system”.

The firm believes the moon will support a population of 1,000 people by 2040, with 10,000 more visiting each year.

It plans a second mission, tentatively scheduled for next year, involving both a lunar landing and the deployment of its own rover.