The Japanese Ispace moon lander has crashed due to a software glitch

A review of the data showed that the software directing the descent appeared to have lost track of the lander’s altitude when it passed over the rim of a crater on the moon’s surface that was about two miles higher than the surrounding terrain.

The software erroneously concluded that the sensor had malfunctioned and rejected altitude measurements that were actually correct.

The engine, altimeter, and other devices are working properly, indicating that the spacecraft’s overall design is intact. Software repairs are easier to complete than major hardware repairs.

“This is not a hardware failure,” Rio Ojii, Ispace’s chief technology officer, said during a press conference on Friday. ‘We do not need to modify the hardware side.’

However, the failure pointed to shortcomings in the Ispace test of the spacecraft’s landing program, which was being developed by the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The decision to change the landing site, after the spacecraft design was finalized in early 2021, likely contributed to the accident.

Originally, Ispace officials chose Lacus Somniorum, a flat plain, as the landing site. But then they decided that Atlas, an ancient crater more than 50 miles wide, would be a more interesting destination.

This means that the lander was not designed to handle the change in altitude as the spacecraft passed over the crater rim, and the simulations just didn’t work out that.

On Tuesday, NASA released images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that appear to show the crash site.

A host of private companies, organizations, and government space agencies have attempted to return to the moon in recent years. But landing on the moon turned out to be more difficult than many expected.

The Beresheet lander, from an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL, was launched to the Moon in 2019, but crashed. The Indian Space Research Organization attempted to land a spacecraft on the Moon in the same year as well, and that vehicle, Vikram, also crashed.

Only China has landed a robotic spacecraft on the moon recently, with three successes in three attempts over the past decade.

Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of Ispace, said the schedule for the company’s next two missions — which includes a nearly identical lander next year and a larger spacecraft in 2025 to the far side of the moon — remains largely unchanged.

“We have a very clear picture of how we can improve our future missions,” Mr. Hakamada said.

Hakamada said Ispace has taken out insurance for the lander, and the financial implications for the company would be small.

More spacecraft are scheduled to be launched to the moon later this year. As part of NASA’s program that hires private companies to fly scientific instruments to the moon, Astrobotic Technology and Instruments of Houston, Inc. of Pittsburgh, is scheduled to send a spacecraft to the moon later this year.

The Indian space agency also announced this week that Chandrayaan-3, a follow-up to an attempted lunar landing in 2019, could launch as early as July 12.

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