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The Slim spacecraft from Japan successfully landed on the moon, but is facing difficulties in generating power.
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The Slim spacecraft from Japan successfully landed on the moon, but is facing difficulties in generating power.

Japan’s attempt to be the fifth nation to successfully land a functioning spacecraft on the moon faced challenges on Friday when mission control reported that the probe was unable to produce electricity upon landing.

The Slim mission, which aimed to test advanced techniques for precise moon landings, encountered a setback when the probe unexpectedly landed at approximately 3pm in the UK. Despite a seemingly flawless approach and descent, the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon experienced a glitch.

The space agency was receiving signals from Slim and a small rover that was released just before touchdown. However, there was a issue with the lander’s solar panels, causing it to rely solely on battery power. Officials stated that the solar panels may not have been positioned correctly towards the sun.

At a press conference two hours after the lander successfully landed, Hitoshi Kuninaka, the leader of Japan’s space lab, stated that Slim is currently relying on its battery and our main focus is transferring its data back to Earth.

The lander’s battery is projected to deplete in a few hours, but there is a chance for onboard electricity generation if the sun’s positioning in the upcoming weeks illuminates the solar cells.

The space agency has reason to believe that Slim successfully executed a gentle landing. However, it may take up to a month to officially confirm if the lander landed within 100 meters of its intended location near the Shioli crater, located just south of the lunar equator. This is a significant objective of the mission.

According to Jaxa, if the probe successfully achieves the desired level of accuracy, it would signify a transition from a time of “landing wherever possible” to “landing in our desired location”. These precise landings will be essential for future missions to explore the moon.

The severity of the issue with the solar panels is uncertain, but it is a setback for Jaxa. They had to cancel their initial attempt to land on the moon in 2022 when they lost communication with the Omotenashi lander. Additionally, a privately-funded lunar mission by Tokyo’s iSpace company failed last year when it crashed on the lunar surface.

On Christmas Day, Slim successfully entered into orbit around the moon using a fuel-efficient route that took several months. At approximately 3pm on Friday in the UK, it initiated its “powered descent sequence” and utilized AI technology to identify crater patterns on the lunar surface and determine its landing location.

Initially, everything seemed to be progressing smoothly as the spacecraft provided data indicating a consistent descent and successful touchdown. However, officials were unable to immediately verify the status of the lander upon reaching the surface.

Major space agencies are once again showing interest in moon missions, as they have plans to send humans back to the surface and take advantage of the water and other resources that can be found there. The Soviet Union and the US were both successful in making soft landings in the 1960s, but the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976 was the last one until China’s Chang’e 3 in 2013. India also joined this exclusive group in 2023 with their Chandrayaan-3 lander.

Landing on the moon is far from straightforward. On Thursday, the private US Peregrine moon lander fell back to Earth and burned up over the south Pacific Ocean after it developed a fuel leak soon after launch. Last year, Russia’s Luna 25 spacecraft crash landed on the moon nearly 60 years after the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 made the first soft touchdown on lunar soil.

Just before landing, Slim deployed two small lunar vehicles called Levs. The Lev-1 was created to hop and collect data using a thermometer, radiation monitor, and slope sensor, and then send the information back to Earth. The second vehicle, developed with Takara Tomy, the company responsible for Transformers toys, is a spherical mini-rover that can transform into a ball and reveal two cameras while turning its hemispheres into wheels.

Mission controllers will consider any scientific tasks that the mission is able to carry out as an added benefit. One goal is to utilize an onboard camera to examine exposed mantle material at the landing location in order to determine if it provides evidence for the theory that the moon was created through a massive collision with Earth.

According to Katherine Joy, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Manchester, who has analyzed lunar samples from the Apollo program, Slim’s ability to send and receive signals suggests that Japan has become the fifth country to successfully land on the moon. Joy expressed her excitement at this news, but noted that the solar panels are not functioning as intended. The impact of this on the mission’s duration and its ability to achieve its scientific objectives will become clearer in the coming hours and days.

Source: theguardian.com