Japan makes first moon landing with precision space probe

Japan landed its first-ever probe on the moon after a spate of setbacks to the nation’s space program, but a power problem might cut the mission short.

The SLIM lander, nicknamed “moon sniper,” touched down about 20 minutes past midnight Japan time on January 2024 morning. The lightweight lander was launched in September 2023 by the H2-A heavy payload rocket co-developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The lander reached the surface and sent out a rover to collect data, JAXA said. While the rover is sending a signal, the agency said the lander’s solar cells aren’t generating energy, meaning it may run out of power within the next several hours. A heater has been turned off to preserve the battery’s power, and it’s possible the lander could recharge as the sun moves.

“We believe we’ve achieved the minimum criteria for success,” a JAXA official told reporters.

A soft landing – in which a spacecraft is brought to a controlled stop – of the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon puts Japan in exclusive company, with just the United States, U.S.S.R., China and India managing the feat already.

Exclusion from the elite club has been a sore point for Japan, which beat archrival China in launching its first satellite in 1970 but has since taken a back seat to a series of high-profile Chinese space successes. That includes the world’s first ever soft landing on the far side of the moon in 2019, and landing on Mars in 2021.

India has eclipsed Japan, too, succeeding in a second attempt last August, 2023 by landing near the lunar south pole. While the Americans and Soviets sent spacecraft to the moon during the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have struggled trying to return: Russia’s Luna-25 crashed last August, and a NASA-backed mission from Pittsburgh startup Astrobotic Technology Inc. failed this month.

For Japan, landing on the moon has been even tougher to crack. JAXA lost contact with a lunar lander in late 2022, and Tokyo-based Ispace Inc. also suffered a communication failure with a craft bound for the moon last April.

Other setbacks include the botched debut of JAXA’s H3 heavy-lift rocket, which failed after takeoff last March and hasn’t flown since. Meanwhile, JAXA’s smaller Epsilon rocket is grounded, too, following an explosion in October 2022.

Lunar Lander

The potential for SLIM to target more specific landing sites should also help future efforts to explore for resources such as water and potentially increase demand for lunar missions, Takeshi Hakamada, Ispace founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview Friday.

Big Japanese companies have already joined the push to build the country’s space-faring clout. Toyota Motor Corp. is JAXA’s partner in developing a lunar rover and Honda Motor Co. is working with the agency to design a system to produce oxygen, hydrogen and electricity on the moon. Ispace’s list of corporate partners includes Japan Airlines Co., Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co. and Citizen Watch Co.

The lunar landing will also improve JAXA’s standing as the government finalizes a plan to give the agency a pot of 1 trillion yen, or $6.8 billion, over 10 years to support space businesses and researchers.

“In Japan, there’s a strong consensus that there’s a big moon economy that’s about to develop in the coming decades,” said Luigi Scatteia, leader of PwC Advisory’s global space practice. “The country wants to be one of the pioneers in exploiting that.”

Closer to home, Japan needs JAXA to play a bigger security role in space, and earlier this month the agency added to the country’s network of spy satellites. The government wants to increase the size of the country’s orbital fleet to keep up with neighbors, including China, which is second only to the United States in the number of spy satellites in orbit.

“There is definitely a race for space technologies” in the region, said Saadia Pekkanen, director of the Space Law, Data and Policy Program at the University of Washington. “For Japan, these realities mean even greater reinforcement of its space-based surveillance and communication capabilities for military purposes.”