Japan achieved a significant milestone as it launched its lunar exploration spacecraft on Thursday using a domestically developed H-IIA rocket. The mission aims to make Japan the fifth nation in the world to achieve a lunar landing, expected in early next year.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the rocket took off from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan as planned and successfully released the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM). Unfavorable weather conditions had led to three postponements in the past month.
The “Moon Sniper” Mission
Dubbed the “moon sniper,” Japan’s objective is to land SLIM within a mere 100 meters of its designated lunar target site. This $100-million mission is anticipated to initiate the landing process by February, following an extended, fuel-efficient trajectory.
High-Accuracy Landing Goal
“The big objective of SLIM is to prove the high-accuracy landing … to achieve ‘landing where we want’ on the lunar surface, rather than ‘landing where we can’,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told a news conference.
Recent Lunar Achievements
The launch comes two weeks after India became the fourth nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon with its Chandrayaan-3 mission to the unexplored lunar south pole. Around the same time, Russia’s Luna-25 lander encountered difficulties and crashed while approaching the moon.
Previous Lunar Landing Attempts
Two earlier lunar landing attempts by Japan failed in the last year. JAXA lost contact with the OMOTENASHI lander and scrubbed an attempted landing in November. The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, made by Japanese startup ispace (9348.T), crashed in April during its lunar descent.
SLIM is slated to touch down on the near side of the moon, near Mare Nectaris, a lunar sea resembling a dark spot when viewed from Earth. Its primary mission objective is to evaluate advanced optical and image processing technologies. Although SLIM will not carry a lunar rover, it plans to analyze the composition of olivine rocks in the vicinity, seeking insights into the moon’s origin.
Thursday’s H-IIA rocket also carried the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) satellite, a joint project of JAXA, NASA, and the European Space Agency. XRISM’s purpose is to observe plasma winds in the universe, deemed crucial for understanding the evolution of stars and galaxies.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (7011.T) manufactured and operated the rocket launch. This mission marked Japan’s 47th H-IIA rocket launch since 2001, boasting a success rate approaching 98%.
Challenges and Future Endeavors
JAXA had temporarily suspended the H-IIA launch carrying SLIM while investigating the failure of its new medium-lift H3 rocket during its maiden flight in March.
Japan’s space endeavors have faced recent challenges, including the launch failure of the Epsilon small rocket in October 2022, followed by an engine explosion during a test in July. Nevertheless, the nation remains committed to sending an astronaut to the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Artemis program in the latter half of the 2020s.