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Japan craft made successful pin-point landing, space agency says

Published : 25 Jan 2024 09:49 PM

Japan's "Moon Sniper" craft landed around 55 metres (180 feet) from its target, the country's space agency said Thursday as it released the first images from the mission.

The unmanned Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), dubbed the "Moon Sniper" for its pin-point technology, had the goal of touching down within 100 metres (330 feet) of a specific landing spot.

That is much more precise than the usual landing zone of several kilometres.

"SLIM succeeded in a pin-point soft landing... the landing point is confirmed to be 55 metres away from the target point," space agency JAXA said.

Saturday's soft lunar landing made Japan only the fifth nation to achieve the feat, after the United States, Soviet Union, China and India.

But celebrations were muted because of a problem with the lightweight spacecraft's solar batteries, which were not generating power.

JAXA decided to switch the craft off with 12 percent power remaining, to allow for a possible recovery when the sun's angle changes.

"If sunlight hits the Moon from the west in the future, we believe there's a possibility of power generation, and we're currently preparing for restoration," JAXA said earlier this week.

Before switching SLIM off, mission control was able to download technical and image data from the craft's descent and the lunar surface.

On Thursday, JAXA published the first colour images from the mission --showing the SLIM craft sitting intact at a slight angle on the rocky grey surface, lunar slopes rising in the distance.

The mission was aiming for a crater where the Moon's mantle, the usually deep inner layer beneath its crust, is believed to be exposed on the surface.

By analysing the rocks there, JAXA hopes to shed light on the mystery of the Moon's possible water resources, key to building bases there one day as possible stopovers on the way to Mars.

Two probes detached successfully from SLIM on Saturday: one with a transmitter and another designed to trundle around the lunar surface beaming images to Earth.

This shape-shifting mini-rover, slightly bigger than a tennis ball, was co-developed by the firm behind the Transformer toys and took the picture released by JAXA on Thursday.

SLIM is one of several recent lunar missions by governments and private firms, 50 years after the first human Moon landing.

But technical problems are rife, and the United States faced two setbacks this month in its ambitious Moon programmes.

Two previous Japanese lunar missions -- one public and one private – have also failed.

In 2022, the country unsuccessfully sent a lunar probe named Omotenashi as part of the United States's Artemis 1 mission.

In April, Japanese startup ispace tried in vain to become the first private company to land on the Moon, losing communication with its craft after what it described as a "hard landing".

The Ashahi Shimbun reports; Japan’s space agency released on Jan. 25 the first photo of its lunar probe making a successful moon landing.

The remarkable photo was snapped by LEV-2, one of the two robots released from the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) probe moments before it touched down on the moon on Jan. 20.

Toy maker Tomy Co. and other organizations collaborated with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to develop the palm-size LEV-2.

Along with the image of SLIM, JAXA also released photos of the rough lunar surface taken by the probe using its multi-band spectral camera.

Although SLIM is currently inactive due to a solar panel failure, the probe managed to transmit these images back to Earth using its built-in battery.

The SLIM probe was launched in September from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Its successful lunar touchdown made Japan the fifth country to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon after the former Soviet Union, the United States, China and India.