(News) — A lunar landing module probably plummeted 5 kilometers before crashing into the lunar surface after a historic attempt to land softly on the Moon, Japanese company Ispace revealed on Friday.
According to the company, the error was probably due to a software problem and an incorrect measurement of the altitude of the spacecraft when it was trying to land on the Moon.
“Based on the review of the flight data, it was observed that, while the lander was sailing towards the intended landing site, the altitude measured by the onboard sensors increased sharply as it passed over a large cliff of approximately 3 kilometers of elevation on the lunar surface, which was determined to be the rim of a crater,” according to a Press release this Friday from Ispace, which built the spacecraft.
The Hakuto-R lunar lander was aiming to make history in late April as it attempted to become the first spacecraft developed by a private company rather than a government space agency to make a controlled landing on the Moon. The landing module was also carrying a rover developed in the United Arab Emirates.
However, shortly after Hakuto-R’s scheduled landing time, flight controllers on the ground revealed that they had not been able to immediately re-establish contact, leading the company to assume that the craft had been lost.
The fate of the spacecraft was confirmed this week when NASA announced that its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter had captured 10 images of the Hakuto-R landing site and found what appears to be at least four crash-landing debris.
“While the lander estimated its own altitude to be zero, or at the lunar surface, it was later determined to be at an altitude of approximately 5 kilometers above the lunar surface,” according to the Ispace press release. “After reaching the scheduled landing time, the lunar lander continued to descend at low speed until the propulsion system ran out of fuel. At this time, the lunar lander’s controlled descent ceased, and it is believed to have free-fallen to the surface of the Moon”.
moon landing attempt
The lunar landing module was launched on December 11 from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard a SpaceX rocket. The spacecraft made a three-month trip to the Moon, which is about 384,600 kilometers from Earth.
Hakuto-R then entered orbit around its target, using a low-energy trajectory. In all, the journey took the lunar lander about 1.4 million kilometers through space.
In a press conference held this Friday, the CEO of Ispace, Takeshi Hakamada, reiterated that the Hakuto-R spacecraft was able to transmit data until its failed attempt to land on the moon. The company received valuable data to fine-tune its lunar lander design for another attempt, Hakamada said.
The lander carried the Rashid rover, the first Arab-made lunar spacecraft developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Only three countries have carried out a controlled moon landing: the United States, the former Soviet Union and China. The United States remains the only country to have landed humans on the Moon.
The Japanese company Ispace took a different approach than previous lunar missions, attempting to land its spacecraft as a private company and not under the flag of a single country.
Even before the failed moon landing attempt, Ispace had prepared for setbacks. “Recognizing the possibility of an anomaly during the mission, the results will be weighed and evaluated against the criteria and incorporated into future missions already under development between now and 2025,” the company said in a publication on December 11.
If the moon landing had been a success, the 22-pound Rashid rover would have been expected to launch from the Hakuto-R. Rashid would have spent “most of the 14-day lunar day exploring the Atlas crater, northeast of the Moon,” according to the European Space Agency, which helped design the rover’s wheels.
The ISPACE story
Japanese company Ispace is one of several companies competing in the Google Lunar XPrize, which offered a $20 million reward to the firm that could put a robotic rover on the moon, travel a couple of thousand meters, and transmit data back to Earth.
The Google-sponsored space race was scrapped in 2018 when no competitor was able to meet the deadline, but Ispace was among the companies that decided to go ahead with the mission.
Israel-based company SpaceIL was the first XPrize contestant to attempt to put its lander on the Moon after the program ended. The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet crashed in 2019 after ground crews lost contact with the lunar lander as it approached the surface.
That same year, the Indian Organization for Space and Research lost contact with a lunar lander shortly before it landed on the Moon. Communication with the spacecraft was never recovered, and images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter later revealed the crash site and the mission’s final resting place.
Among Ispace’s future plans is a mission to collect lunar soil samples as part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to use commercial lunar landers to explore the surface of the Moon.
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