First attempt by Japan's ispace biz to land on Moon ends in awkward silence

Comms lost to Hakuto-R after apparent crash landing

A private company's first attempt to land a spacecraft on the Moon ended in apparent failure on Tuesday.

Japanese aerospace biz ispace's Hakuto-R lunar lander was supposed to touchdown on Earth's natural satellite today, though its mission control lost contact with the unmanned craft, and it is feared lost.

Launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 11, the lander spent months travelling toward the Moon and entered lunar orbit in March to prepare for landing. Carrying the United Arab Emirates' Rashid rover, the goal was to release the robot onto the lunar surface for scientific research. 

The landing event was broadcast live from ispace's mission control centre (MCC) in Tokyo, Japan. You can replay the livestream below.

Youtube Video

Hakuto-R began deorbiting about an hour before touchdown, scheduled for 0140 JST (1640 UTC), decreasing its altitude and slowing down its speed. As it gets closer to the Moon's surface, the spacecraft was supposed to flip vertically by design and fire its thrusters to attempt a soft touchdown. A simulation modelling the landing process showed Hakuto-R had arrived on the Moon, though engineers could not reach the lander to confirm it had reached its target destination safely.

"At this moment, we have not been able to confirm a successful landing on the lunar surface," ispace's founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada, said in an announcement. "Our engineers at MCC [are continuing] to investigate the current status of the lander. Currently we have not confirmed communications with the lander."

"We already confirmed that we established communications until the very end of the landing. However, now we've lost communications, so we have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface. Our engineers will continue to investigate the situation and we will update you with further information once we finish the investigation."

Hakamada thanked his employees and their families, and said that although the mission may not have been a complete success, the company obtained flight data up until the landing that will be invaluable for its future missions.

Founded in 2010, ispace initially began as a team of engineers competing in the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition awarding up to $20 million to send a spacecraft to the lunar surface capable of then travelling 500 metres. Although the team did not win, some members, including Hakamata, decided to build their own aerospace startup aimed at building and launching private missions to the Moon. 

The Hakuto-R Mission 1 would have marked the first time a private company had successfully landed on the Moon if ispace had managed to bring down its spacecraft in working order. The company has a second and third mission to launch lunar spacecraft scheduled in 2024 and 2025. Private aerospace outfits like ispace are supposed to foster new industries looking to build infrastructure or extract resources on the Moon. 

For what it's worth, SpaceIL, also a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize, failed in 2019 to land its Moon craft in one piece on the lunar surface after developing a problem with its thrusters.

"We will keep going. We will never quit our lunar quest," Hakamada said. ®

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