By MARCIA DUNN (AP Aerospace Writer)
A Japanese company’s spacecraft reportedly crashed while trying to land on the moon on Wednesday, losing contact moments before landing and sending flight controllers scrambling to figure out what happened.
More than six hours after communication ceased, Tokyo-based ispace finally confirmed what everyone had suspected, saying there was a “high probability” that the lander would crash into the moon.
It was a disappointing setback for ispace, which after a 4 1/2 month mission was on the verge of doing what only three countries have done: successfully landing a spacecraft on the moon.
Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, held out hope even after contact was lost as the lander descended the final 33 feet (10 meters). The air traffic controllers looked at their screens in Tokyo as the minutes ticked away with only the silence from the moon.
A grim-faced team surrounded Hakamada as he announced that the landing had likely failed.
The official word finally came in a statement: “It has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander will eventually make a hard landing on the surface of the Moon.”
If all had gone well, ispace would have been the first private business to land on the moon. Hakamada vowed to try again, saying a second moonshot is already in the works for next year.
Only three governments have successfully landed on the moon: Russia, the United States, and China. An Israeli nonprofit tried to land on the moon in 2019, but its spacecraft was destroyed on impact.
“If space is hard, landing is harder,” wrote Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I know from personal experience how awful it feels.”
Leshin worked on NASA’s Mars polar lander that crashed on the red planet in 1999.
The 2.3-meter Japanese lander carried a mini lunar rover for the United Arab Emirates and a toy-like robot from Japan designed to roll around in moon dust for about 10 days. This was how everything was supposed to go in the mission.
Called Hakuto, Japanese for white rabbit, the spacecraft targeted Atlas Crater in the northeastern section of the moon’s near side, more than 50 miles (87 kilometers) across and just over 1 mile (2 kilometers) deep.
It took a long, circuitous route to the moon after liftoff in December, transmitting photos of Earth along the way. The lander entered lunar orbit on March 21.
Flight controllers were able to determine that the lander was vertical as it used its thrusters to slow down during final approach on Wednesday. Engineers monitoring the fuel gauge noticed that as the tank neared empty, the lander picked up speed as it descended, and communication was then lost, according to ispace. That makes them think the lander crashed.
Founded in 2010, ispace hopes to start turning a profit as a one-stop taxi service to the moon for other businesses and organizations. The company has already raised $300 million to cover the first three missions, according to Hakamada.
“We will continue, we never give up on the moon quest,” he said.
For this test flight, the two main experiments were government-sponsored: the United Arab Emirates’ 22-pound (10-kilogram) Rashid rover, named after the royal family of Dubai, and the Japanese Space Agency’s orange-sized sphere, designed to transform into a robot with wheels on wheels. month. The UAE was looking to expand its presence on the moon, already in orbit around Earth with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station and in orbit around Mars.
The moon is suddenly hot again, with numerous countries and private companies clamoring to get on the lunar bandwagon. China has successfully landed three spacecraft on the moon since 2013, and the US, China, India and South Korea have satellites currently orbiting the moon.
NASA’s first test flight of its new Moonshot program, Artemis, reached the moon and back late last year, paving the way for four astronauts to follow by the end of next year and two more to actually land on the moon a year after that . . Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology and Houston’s Intuitive Machines have lunar landers waiting in the wings, ready to launch later this year at the behest of NASA.
Hakuto and an Israeli spacecraft called Beresheet were finalists in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which requires a successful moon landing by 2018. The $20 million grand prize went unclaimed.
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