The HAKUTO-R Moon Lander & Moon Rover are on display in Tokyo on Feb. 21, 2019.

The HAKUTO-R Moon Lander & Moon Rover are on display in Tokyo on Feb. 21, 2019. (Koki Nagahama, Getty Images for Media Ambition Tokyo/TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — A private Japanese company‘s lunar lander that launched from Cape Canaveral four months ago attempted a historic moon landing Tuesday, but communication with it was lost shortly before touchdown.

The company, ispace, livestreamed the attempt by the HAKUTO-R Mission 1 lander, the first of a planned series of landers that would have become the first commercial soft landing ever on the moon if it had been successful.

“We have to assume ... we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” said ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada. “Our engineers will continue to investigate.”

He did highlight that even if the lander failed, the company received valuable insight that can be used on the next two missions already planned for 2024 and 2025.

“We are very proud of the fact that we have achieved many things during this Mission 1,” he said. “We acquired actual flight data during the landing phase. That is a great achievement.”

The target touchdown attempt came around 12:40 p.m. but telemetry was lost just feet above the surface with the announcement coming about a half-hour later that communication could not be reestablished with the lander.

Hakuto, which in Japanese means “white rabbit,” entered lunar orbit on March 21 and maneuvered to get to 60 miles above the surface before the landing attempt. A burn Tuesday morning sped it up to 3,700 mph while circling the moon as it descended to 15 miles above the surface.

With about 13 minutes before landing, it performed a braking burn bringing it down to 236 mph and less than two miles from the surface. In the final two minutes, the lander continued to reduce speed while it approached the designated landing site while taking a vertical orientation.

It was to slow from 10 mph to less than 1 mph before the main thrusters switched off, after which it would have to rely on assist thrusters for a controlled touchdown. It was near the end of this phase that the company lost telemetry.

The primary landing target was the Atlas Crater in the northeast quadrant of the moon, the company stated.

The probe had already been completing company goals ahead of the attempt while also transmitting photos of the lunar surface and a few Earthrises in the last month.

“What we have accomplished so far is already a great achievement, and we are already applying lessons learned from this flight to our future missions,” said Hakamada in a press release last week.

Only the United States, Russia and China have managed successful soft landings of the moon while Japan, India and the European Space Agency have crash-landed probes on the moon.

The lander launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December sharing payload space with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s briefcase-sized Lunar Flashlight, that planned to map ice in the permanently shadowed spaces near the moon’s south pole. Both were successfully deployed about an hour after liftoff.

The monthslong trip used the gravity of Earth and the sun, a method to trade off costly fuel for payload space.

The HAKUTO-R series lander was small, less than 8 feet tall that would have weighed around 750 pounds when it landed including space for about 66 pounds of customer cargo.

Among its customers hitching a ride were a small rover for the United Arab Emirates and a two-wheeled robot for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Upon landing, it would have become the first commercial company and the first Japanese spacecraft to land on the moon. The UAE would have also been making its first visit with the rover named Rashid that featured high-resolution and thermal cameras as well as a probe to study why moondust is sticky.

Operations on the surface were expected to last about 10 days.

The venture by ispace was born out of a previous iteration of the company that was one of five finalists for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, which ended up not being awarded since no company managed the successful privately funded landing on the lunar surface by the 2018 deadline.

One of those competitors, though, followed through with its attempt and came close in 2019. That’s when the Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL attempted to land its Beresheet probe on the moon, but it ended up crashing when its main engine failed.

The HAKUTO-R Mission 1 lander looked to avoid a similar fate, but ispace has two more lunar landing missions already in the works.

“We have achieved so much in the six short years since we first began conceptualizing this project in 2016,” said Hakamada in a press release ahead of launch.

While ispace came at least within feet of its goal, NASA’s Lunar Flashlight suffered propulsion issues after deployment and teams have until the end of the month to get it into position that would allow less frequent than planned flights over the moon’s south pole. Shortly after launch, three of the small satellite’s four thrusters were found to be underperforming. The fourth thruster also suffered performance issues during a maneuver that would have allowed it to reach its desired orbital goal. Now teams are simply attempting to keep the probe in an orbit that would let it make monthly flybys of the moon.

“Though we hoped the propulsion system would perform perfectly, encountering and responding to these issues is an expected part of a technology demonstration mission like this,” said Justin Treptow, deputy program executive for the Small Spacecraft Technology program in a March update from NASA. “Flight testing, evaluating, and troubleshooting this system all help fulfill the mission’s primary objective to explore the actual in-space performance of this novel propulsion system.”

The probe had aimed to use near-infrared lasers and an onboard spectrometer for a better look at the potential landing sites for NASA’s Artemis program by focusing near the shadowed craters and other areas of the moon that could have ice deposits.

After the successful uncrewed Artemis I mission around the moon late last year, NASA now aims to fly humans back to the moon, but not land, on the Artemis II mission targeting November 2024. Artemis III would follow no earlier than December 2025, a mission that looks to return humans including the first woman to the lunar surface for the first time since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. To date, only 12 Americans have walked on the moon.

Artemis-related missions are also in the future for ispace, which is working with U.S.-based company Draper for its future landing missions as part of a contract through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. It also has contracts with NASA to collect lunar regolith as part of other HAKUTO-R missions.

The company’s mission statement is to build out a lunar colony with 1,000 residents by 2040 called Moon Valley, and “develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily lives on Earth, as well as expand our living sphere into space.”

©2023 Orlando Sentinel.


 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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