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A spacecraft from Japan nicknamed the "moon sniper" is on its way to land on the surface of the moon.
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A spacecraft from Japan nicknamed the “moon sniper” is on its way to land on the surface of the moon.

Japan is on final approach to become only the fifth country to land on the moon, in what would be a reversal of fortunes as it attempts to join a global space race centred on unravelling the mysteries of the lunar landscape.

According to Jaxa, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (Slim) is scheduled to start its descent to the rugged surface of the moon at midnight on Friday (1500 GMT) and is expected to land approximately 20 minutes later, if everything goes as planned.

The objective of the mission is to determine if the spacecraft truly lives up to its nickname “moon sniper,” which refers to its impressive capability to land with remarkable precision in challenging situations.

Jaxa officials are optimistic that their precise targeting technology will allow for a landing within 100 metres of the predetermined location on the moon’s surface. This would be a significant advancement compared to past missions, where landing zones were measured in kilometers.

Jaxa has stated that success would signify a shift from the current approach of “landing wherever possible” to one of “landing where desired” for future missions.

Japan would join a select group of nations, including the US, the Soviet Union, China, and India, who have achieved this accomplishment. This success would also help alleviate the setbacks faced by Japan’s space program in recent times.

In November of 2022, Japan decided to forgo their efforts to land the lunar probe Omotenashi on the moon. Then in April of 2023, a Japanese start-up, with the goal of being the first private company to successfully land on the moon, lost communication with their spacecraft after it experienced a rough landing.

The “Smart Lander for Investigating Moon” (Slim) at the satellite assembly building in Kagoshima.

On Christmas Day, 110 days after its September launch, Slim successfully entered orbit around the moon. This came after a failed launch in May and a second delay in August due to inclement weather. The mission’s goal is to land on a crater where the moon’s mantle, the inner layer beneath its surface, can be reached.

According to Tomokatsu Morota, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo who is an expert in lunar and planetary exploration, the rocks that are visible in this location are essential for understanding the beginnings of the moon and the Earth. He shared this statement with Agence France-Presse.

The objective could also investigate the utilization of water resources to aid in the construction of bases on the moon. The potential for commercialization on the lunar surface would be determined by the presence of water at the poles, according to Morota.

In 2019, Jaxa successfully landed a spacecraft on a fast-moving asteroid. However, specialists believe that the difficulties are even more significant on the moon due to its stronger gravitational pull.

The spacecraft, which will have its landing shown live, will only have one try to land successfully. This means that precision is crucial in order for it to touch down on an area with rocks. According to Morota, the craft will use a camera to examine the surrounding area.

The Slim rover, designed by Jaxa and Takara Tomy, is a spherical robot that can alter its shape while navigating the uneven terrain of the moon. It is featured in a Jaxa video game that allows players to create their own simulated moon landing.

A successful endeavor would signify Japan’s participation in a fresh period of exploring the moon, following shortly after India’s achievement of being the first nation to successfully land an unmanned craft near the relatively uncharted south pole of the moon.

It has been 54 years since the first human landing on the moon, with the last crewed mission taking place in 1972. Despite this, both governments and private companies remain captivated by Earth’s satellite, driven by the belief of many scientists that it holds a potential source of water.

However, there are many difficulties and challenges associated with lunar missions. Recently, a privately-owned lunar lander from the US experienced a failure while in transit due to fuel leakage. As a result, it was predicted to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate. Nasa has also reported a delay in their plans to send humans to the moon through their Artemis program. In addition, other nations such as Russia, China, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates are also preparing for their own lunar missions.

Source: theguardian.com