A Japanese company lost contact with its spacecraft moments before touchdown on the moon Wednesday, saying the mission had apparently failed.
Communications ceased as the lander descended the final 33 feet (10 meters), traveling around 16 mph (25 kph). Flight controllers peered at their screens in Tokyo, expressionless, as minutes went by with no word from the lander, which is presumed to have crashed.
“We have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” said Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of the company, ispace.
An hour later, he said he could not confirm the lander had crashed, telling The Associated Press that engineers should have a better idea later in the day of what went wrong.
If all had gone well, his company would have been the first private business to pull off a lunar landing. Hakamada vowed to try again, saying a second moonshot is already in the works for next year, regardless of Wednesday’s outcome.
Only three governments have successfully touched down on the moon: Russia, the United States and China. An Israeli nonprofit tried to land on the moon in 2019, but its spacecraft was destroyed on impact.
The 7-foot lander (2.3-meter) Japanese lander carried a mini lunar rover for the United Arab Emirates and a toylike robot from Japan designed to roll around in the moon dust. There were also items from private customers on board.
Named Hakuto, Japanese for white rabbit, the spacecraft had targeted Atlas crater in the northeastern section of the moon’s near side, more than 50 miles (87 kilometers) across and just over 1 mile (2 kilometers) deep.
It took a long, roundabout route to the moon following its December liftoff, beaming back photos of Earth along the way. The lander entered lunar orbit on March 21.
For this test flight, the two main experiments were government-sponsored: the UAE’s 22-pound (10-kilogram) rover Rashid, named after Dubai’s royal family, and the Japanese Space Agency’s orange-sized sphere designed to transform into a wheeled robot on the moon. With a science satellite already around Mars and an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, the UAE was seeking to extend its presence to the moon.
Founded in 2010, ispace hopes to start turning a profit as a one-way taxi service to the moon for other businesses and organizations. The company has already raised $300 million to cover the first three missions, according to Hakamada.
“We will keep going, never quit lunar quest,” he said.
The moon is suddenly hot again, with numerous countries and private companies clamoring to get on the lunar bandwagon. China has successfully landed three spacecraft on the moon since 2013, and U.S., China, India and South Korea have satellites currently circling the moon.
NASA’s first test flight in its new moonshot program, Artemis, made it to the moon and back late last year, paving the way for four astronauts to follow by the end of next year and two others to actually land on the moon a year after that. Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology and Houston’s Intuitive Machines have lunar landers waiting in the wings, poised to launch later this year at NASA’s behest.
Hakuto and the Israeli spacecraft named Beresheet were finalists in the Google Lunar X Prize competition requiring a successful landing on the moon by 2018. The $20 million grand prize went unclaimed.
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