A Japanese company has lost contact with a small robotic spacecraft it is sending to the moon. Analysis of the vehicle’s data suggests that it ran out of propellant during its final approach and gently crashed into the lunar surface instead of landing.
The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, built by Japan’s IceSpace, exited lunar orbit after firing its main engine. About an hour later, at 12:40 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the roughly 7.5-foot-tall lander was expected to touch down in the 54-mile-wide Atlas Crater in the moon’s near-northeast quadrant.
But after touchdown time, no signal was received from the spacecraft. In a live video streamed by the company, a silence enveloped the control room in Tokyo, where iSpace engineers, mostly young people and from around the world, looked at their screens with concerned expressions.
In a statement released Wednesday morning in Japan, ISpace engineers said the estimated remaining propellant “was at a low threshold, and the descent speed increased rapidly after a short period of time,” the agency said.
In other words, the spacecraft ran out of fuel.
Communication with the spacecraft was then lost. “Based on this, there is a high probability of the lander making a hard landing on the lunar surface,” the company said.
The investigation must now determine why the spacecraft misjudged its altitude. Analysis suggests that it was still high when it should have been on the ground.
In an interview, Ispace chief executive Takeshi Hakamada said he was “very proud” of the decision. “I’m not disappointed,” he said.
With data from the spacecraft, the company will be able to apply “lessons learned” to its next two missions, Mr. Hagamada said.
The Hakuto-R spacecraft was launched in December and took a circuitous but energy-efficient path to the moon, entering lunar orbit in March. For the past month, engineers have been checking the lander’s systems before proceeding with the landing attempt.
The iSpace Lander may have been the first step toward a new paradigm for space exploration, with governments, research institutions, and companies sending scientific experiments and other cargo to the moon.
The beginning of that lunar transit transition will have to wait for other companies later this year. Two commercial landers built by US companies and funded by NASA are set to launch to the moon in the coming months.
NASA established its commercial Lunar Payload Service program in 2018 because it believes that buying rides on private spacecraft to take instruments and equipment to the moon is cheaper than building its own vehicles. Additionally, NASA hopes to encourage a new commercial industry around the Moon, and competition between lunar companies will further reduce costs. The project was designed as part of a similar initiative that successfully provided transportation to and from the International Space Station.
So far, however, NASA has little to show for its efforts. The first two missions of Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology and Houston’s Intuitive Engine, due later this year, are years behind schedule, and some of the companies NASA chose to bid on CLPS missions have already gone out of business.
ISpace plans a second mission next year using a lander of nearly the same design. In 2026, as part of the CLPS mission led by Cambridge, Mass.’s Draper Observatory, a large iSpace Lander is slated to carry NASA payloads to the far side of the Moon.
Two countries – Japan and the United Arab Emirates – lost their payloads on the lander. The Japanese space agency JAXA wanted to test a two-wheeled convertible lunar robot, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai sent a small rover to explore the landing site. Each would have been the country’s first robotic explorers on the lunar surface.
Other payloads include a test module for NGK Spark Plug Company’s solid-state battery, an artificial intelligence flight computer and 360-degree cameras from Canadansys Aerospace.
During the space race 50 years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union successfully sent a robotic spacecraft to the surface of the Moon. Recently, China has landed three intact spacecraft on the moon.
However, other attempts failed.
Beresheet, an initiative of Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, crashed in April 2019 when a command sent to the spacecraft inadvertently turned off the main engine, sending the spacecraft to its doom.
Eight months later, India’s Vikram lander veered off course about a mile above the surface during its landing attempt, then went silent.
If the iSpace lander crashes, it may take some time to decipher what happened via telemetry sent from the spacecraft. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was eventually able to locate the crash sites of Beresheet and Vikram, and M1’s resting place in Atlas Crater.
ISpace isn’t the only private space company facing difficulties in the first few months of 2023. New rocket models developed by SpaceX, APL Space Systems, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Relativity failed during their first flights, although some went farther into space than others. . Virgin Orbit’s most recent rocket launch failed and the company later declared bankruptcy, although it continues to work toward another launch.
At the same time, launch frequency is higher than ever, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket having dozens of successful liftoffs so far in 2023. The Arianespace rocket also sent a European Space Agency probe to Jupiter.