A model of the Hakuto-R lunar lander built by Ispace is on display in late April at a Tokyo site.
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The Japanese company Espace revealed, on Friday, that a lunar lander likely retreated 3 miles before hitting the lunar surface, after a historic attempt to land on the moon.
The company said the glitch was likely due to a software issue and an incorrect measurement of the spacecraft’s altitude as it was trying to find a foothold on the lunar surface.
“Based on a review of the flight data, it was noted that as the probe was traveling to its planned landing site, the altitude measured by the onboard sensors rose sharply as it passed over a large cliff about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) in elevation on the lunar surface, which has been determined to be the rim of a crater,” according to a press release issued Friday from Ispace, which built the spacecraft.
The Hakuto-R lunar lander aimed to make history in late April in its bid 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 probe also carried a rover developed in the United Arab Emirates.
But shortly after the Hakuto-R’s expected landing time, flight controllers on Earth revealed that they were unable to immediately restore communication, leading the company to assume the spacecraft was lost.
The spacecraft’s fate was confirmed this week when NASA announced that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took 10 images of the Hakuto-R landing site and found what appeared to be at least four pieces of debris from the landing.
“While the probe estimated its altitude to be zero, or at the lunar surface, it was later determined to be about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) above the lunar surface,” according to the Ispace news release. “After reaching the set landing time, the vehicle continued to descend at a low speed until the propulsion system ran out of fuel. At that time, the controlled descent of the lander stopped, and it was believed to have fallen freely on the lunar surface.”
The spacecraft launched atop a SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Dec. 11. The spacecraft has made a three-month trip to the Moon, which is about 239,000 miles (384,600 km) from Earth. Hakuto-R then entered orbit around its target, using a low-energy trajectory. Overall, the lander’s journey took about 870,000 miles (1.4 million km) through space.
During a press conference on Friday, Ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada confirmed that the Hakuto-R spacecraft was able to transmit data up until the failed landing attempt. Hakamada said the company had received valuable data to fine-tune the design of the lunar lander for another attempt.
The lunar probe was carrying the Rashid rover – the first Arab-made lunar spacecraft, which was developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Only three countries have carried out a controlled landing on the moon – the United States, the former Soviet Union and China. The United States remains the only country to put humans on the moon.
The Japanese company Ispace took a different approach from previous lunar flights, trying to land its spacecraft on the moon as a for-profit business rather than under the banner of a single country.
Even before the failed landing attempt, Ispace had been preparing for mishaps. “Recognizing the potential for an anomaly during the mission, the results will be weighed, evaluated against criteria, and included in future missions already in development between now and 2025,” the company noted in a Dec. 11 post.
Had the landing been successful, the 22-pound (10-kilogram) Rosetta craft would have been expected to have ejected from the Hakuto R. Rashid has been spending “most of the 14-day lunar day exploring the Atlas crater in the north-east of the moon,” according to the European Space Agency, which helped design the rover’s wheels.
Japanese company Ispace is one of several companies that competed in the Google Lunar XPrize competition, which offered a $20 million reward for a company that can put a robotic rover on the surface of the moon, travel 2,000 feet and transmit data back to Earth.
The Google-sponsored space race was canceled in 2018 when no competitor could meet a deadline, but Ispace was among the companies that chose to pursue the task.
Israel-based SpaceIL was the first XPrize contestant to attempt to put the lander on the moon after the program ended. The Israeli Beresheet spacecraft crashed in 2019 after ground teams lost contact with the lander as it approached the surface.
In the same year, the Indian Space and Research Organization lost contact with a lunar lander shortly before it was scheduled to land on the lunar surface. Communication with the spacecraft was never restored, and images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter later revealed the crash site and the mission’s final resting place.
The mission to retrieve lunar soil samples on behalf of NASA’s Artemis program, which intends to use commercial lunar landers to explore the lunar surface, is part of Ispace’s future plans.