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Moon landing uncertain after Japanese spacecraft loses signal

A Japanese company has lost contact with the small robotic spacecraft it sent to the moon, a sign that it may have crashed into 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, the roughly 7.5-foot-tall lander is expected to touch down in Atlas Crater, a 54-mile-wide meteorite in the northeast quadrant on the near side of the Moon pit.

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.

“At the moment, we cannot confirm whether we have successfully landed on the lunar surface,” Ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada said half an hour after the scheduled landing time.

So, he said, they had to assume that the loss of communications meant “we couldn’t complete the landing on the lunar surface.”

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.

Still, Hakamada said in an interview that he was “very, very proud” of the result. “I’m not disappointed,” he said.

The 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.

Once the engines ignited, the spacecraft either landed or crashed today. It doesn’t have the ability to return to a higher orbit later for another attempt. It seems something is wrong.

Mr Hakamada said Ispace’s chief technology officer, Ryo Ujiie, told him the spacecraft was in constant communication with the ground. “However, our engineers still need to investigate in more detail what happened before and after the landing,” he said. “Otherwise, we can’t confirm anything.”

He said he could not say whether the data indicated that something went wrong at the last minute. “Unfortunately, I haven’t updated yet,” Mr. Hakamada said.

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

NASA launched the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program in 2018 because buying a private spacecraft to send instruments and equipment to the Moon promised to be cheaper than building 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. The first two missions, Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology and Houston’s Intuitive Machines later that year, were many years behind schedule, and some of the companies that NASA chose to bid for the CLPS mission have gone out of business.

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 — may have lost payloads on the lander. 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 their 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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