Japan is gearing up for its latest endeavor to achieve a gentle landing on the Moon with the Slim (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) mission.
The objective is to touch down on a gentle slope near the equatorial crater known as Shioli. This undertaking comes on the heels of a recent unsuccessful attempt by a private American company to land on the lunar surface. Landing on the Moon has historically proven challenging, with only about half of all attempts meeting with success.
Japan’s space agency, Jaxa, is banking on the precision navigation technologies integrated into Slim to improve the odds of a successful landing. The mission has earned the nickname “Moon Sniper” due to these advanced navigation capabilities. The lander’s onboard computer will utilize rapid image processing and crater mapping to guide the descent, aiming to reach within 100 meters (330 feet) of the designated touchdown point.
The descent maneuvers for Slim are scheduled to commence from an altitude of 15 kilometers (9 miles) at midnight into Saturday, Japan Standard Time (Friday 15:00 GMT).
If the mission proceeds as planned, the spacecraft is anticipated to gently settle into the lunar “soil” approximately 20 minutes later. Only the government space agencies of the US, the Soviet Union, China, and India have successfully reached the lunar surface intact, and Jaxa expresses high confidence in becoming the fifth to achieve this feat.
The descent will be broadcasted via a web stream on the agency’s YouTube channel. However, Slim’s operational life on the lunar surface is expected to be limited. As Shioli is currently illuminated by sunlight, once darkness returns at the end of the month, the spacecraft’s solar panels will be unable to generate electricity, and its components may break in the harsh, plummeting temperatures.
Before its potential shutdown, Slim aims to utilize a scientific camera to study the rocks around the crater. Additionally, the mission includes two small rovers, one being a hopping robot weighing approximately 2kg (4.4lb), and the other a ball that alters its shape when stationary to capture photos. Notably, Tomy, the company renowned for creating Transformers toys, is involved in the development of the latter rover.
Jaxa’s prior success in landing on asteroids, a feat accomplished twice, provides valuable experience for the Slim mission. However, the Moon’s significantly larger gravity poses a greater challenge to achieve a successful landing.
In the context of lunar landing attempts, a private Japanese company, Ispace, made an attempt last year with its Hakuto-R craft, which unfortunately ended in a crash. The onboard computer became confused about its altitude above the Moon, leading to an early shutdown of the thruster system. This premature assumption that the surface had been reached occurred when, in reality, the mission still had another 5 kilometers (3 miles) to cover.
In a recent development, the private American company Astrobotic faced challenges with its Peregrine landing craft. Due to a propulsion fault, the craft was disposed of in Earth’s atmosphere, preventing any attempt at a touch-down.