Space travel: Japan’s private moon mission may have failed

space travel
Japan’s private moon mission may have failed

A model of the lunar lander "Hakuto R".  Photo: Eugene Hoshiko/AP/dpa

A model of the lunar lander “Hakuto-R”. photo

© Eugene Hoshiko/AP/dpa

It should have been a moment of jubilation, but after the time of landing there was helplessness and concern. Initially, no communication was possible with the Japanese moon lander “Hakuto-R”.

The Japanese company ispace was unable to report the success of the first private moon landing on Tuesday evening. It was no longer possible to establish communication with the “Hakuto-R” moon lander, ispace said about half an hour after the time of landing – by midnight (CEST) there was no new information from the company. This left it unclear whether “Hakuto-R” touched down largely intact or suffered serious damage. So far only government programs could have landed successfully on the moon. Other private moon missions had previously failed.

The German astronaut Reinhold Ewald reacted sceptically. “Actually, communication should have been there for a long time,” he told the German Press Agency (dpa). “I don’t want to write off the probe, but they looked very concerned in the control room.”

Esa: “We keep our fingers crossed for them”

The situation is difficult to assess, said Gerhard Billig from the European space agency Esa of the dpa. The company ispace is now analyzing the data – and there are hundreds of parameters from different subsystems. It is not possible to predict how quickly this data puzzle can be put together to make a statement about the condition of “Hakuto-R”. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

Europe’s former head of space travel, Jan Wörner, told the dpa that it has been shown again and again that space travel is difficult and that success often only comes after failure. “You just have to have the staying power – and the necessary financial support for commercial missions,” said the former Director General of the European space agency Esa. Japan’s private moon mission shows that the commercialization of space travel is progressing.

The lander, 2.3 meters high and 2.6 meters wide with the landing legs extended, had carried international cargo to the moon, including a small United Arab Emirates rover and an even smaller two-wheeled robot. It was developed by the Japanese state space agency Jaxa and the Japanese toy manufacturer Tomy. Two American competitors, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are also planning moon missions in the near future.

Littered with debris

Takeshi Hakamada, founder and boss of ispace, had announced before the landing “the beginning of a new era of commercial lunar missions”. But a moon landing is not trivial: the moon is littered with debris from missions that didn’t make it. These include the “Beresheet” probe of the Israeli non-profit organization Space IL, which crashed on the surface in 2019 due to a failed engine. Only the USA, the Soviet Union and China have successfully landed and operated spacecraft on the moon.

Private companies have also wanted to land on the moon and take on other space projects for years. So far, US companies such as SpaceX have been particularly involved. The competition is also now in the starting blocks, and there are plans for further missions to the moon by private companies before the end of this year. “We are opening access to the moon for the progress of mankind,” advertises the US company Intuitive Machines. The moon flight of his lander “Nova-C” is currently planned for June, but has already been postponed several times. Among other things, the lander is to collect data for NASA’s “Artemis” mission on the moon.

Cooperation with commercial providers

The US company Astrobotic Technology from Pittsburgh wants to send its “Peregrine Lander” possibly in May. This start has also been postponed several times. Among other things, the lander is to bring materials for experiments to the moon on behalf of NASA. As with the ISS space station, the US space agency Nasa is also working more and more closely with commercial providers on moon projects because this has proven to be an efficient and ultimately cost-saving way. Conversely, the business model of private companies has so far often depended on government clients.

ispace also has contracts with Nasa and Jaxa. The aim of the project team at Jaxa was to collect data from the moon for the development of future moon missions. In the run-up to the attempted landing, the ispace private mission was “the quickest means of achieving our goal.”

Astronaut Ewald praised the ispace mission – regardless of the outcome of the landing, this was progress in space travel and definitely a role model for Europe. “We have to make sure in Europe that we don’t miss the boat technically,” said the 66-year-old, who flew to the Mir space station in a Soyuz capsule in 1997. “The Japanese may have failed with the moon mission – but unfortunately Europe is not even trying.”

Hakuto means “white rabbit”

The Atlas crater chosen as the landing site for “Hakuto-R” lies on the south-eastern edge of Mare Frigoris (“Sea of ​​Cold”). A rocket from the US space company SpaceX launched the lander in December. Hakuto means “white rabbit” in Japanese – he lived on the moon in Japanese mythology. The “R” stands for English reboot, restart.

Orbital exploration began in the 1950s during the Cold War as heated competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The Soviets landed an unmanned probe on the lunar surface in 1959. Ten years later, the USA succeeded in the first manned mission with “Apollo 11”. Two years ago, China sent a capsule to the moon and retrieved rock samples. In the course of the “Artemis” project of the USA, people should soon fly to the moon again.


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