‘We lost the communication’: First private moon landing appears to fail

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Japanese startup ispace assumed its attempt to make the first private moon landing had failed as engineers struggled to regain contact with the company’s Hakuto-R Mission 1 (M1) lander long after it was due for a lunar touchdown.

“We lost the communication, so we have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” ispace Chief Executive Takeshi Hakamada said on a company live stream, as mission control engineers in Tokyo continued to try regaining contact with its lander.

This illustration provided by ispace in April 2023 depicts the Hakuto spacecraft on the surface of the moon.Credit: ispace

The M1 lander appeared set to autonomously touch down around 2:40am AEST after coming as close as 90 meters from the lunar surface, a live animation of the lander’s telemetry showed.

At the expected touchdown time, engineers in mission control appeared anxious as they awaited signal confirmation of M1’s fate, but no such confirmation came.

“Our engineers will continue to investigate the situation,” Hakamada said. “At this moment, what I can tell is we are very proud of the fact that we have already achieved many things during this mission 1.”

The spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a SpaceX rocket in December and completed 8 out of 10 mission objectives in space that would provide valuable data for ispace’s next landing attempt in 2024, Hakamada said. That Mission 2 spacecraft is already under construction.

Flight controllers in Tokyo wait for a signal from the company’s Hakuto spacecraft after a landing attempt on the surface of the moon.Credit: ispace via AP

A successful landing would have marked a welcome reversal from recent setbacks Japan has faced in space technology, where it has big ambitions of building a domestic industry, including a goal of sending Japanese astronauts to the moon by the late 2020s.

A moonshot is an ambitious feat for a private company. Only the United States, the former Soviet Union and China have soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon, with attempts in recent years by India and a private Israeli company ending in failure.

Roughly an hour before the planned touchdown on Tuesday, the 2.3-metre-tall M1 began its landing phase, gradually tightening its orbit around the moon from 100 km above the surface to roughly 25 km travelling at nearly 6,000 km/hour.

ispace Chief Technology Officer Ryo Ujiie, speaking with reporters on Monday, likened the task of slowing the lander to the correct speed against the moon’s gravitational pull to “stepping on the brakes on a running bicycle at the edge of a ski jumping hill.”

Takeshi Hakamada, center, founder and CEO of ispace, right, and his team.Credit: AP

The lander was expected to reach a landing site at the edge of Mare Frigoris, in the moon’s northern hemisphere, where it would have deployed a two-wheeled, baseball-sized rover developed by JAXA, Japanese toymaker Tomy Co and Sony Group, as well as the United Arab Emirates’ four-wheeled “Rashid” Rover.

The M1 also carried an experimental solid-state battery made by NGK Spark Plug Co, among other objects to gauge how they perform on the moon.


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