As Japanese start-up ispace attempted to become the first private company to successfully land on the Moon, it lost contact with its lander when it was scheduled to land. “We lost communication so we have to consider that we were unable to complete the landing on the surface of the Moon,” ispace CEO and Founder Takeshi Hakamada said on Wednesday, April 25. “Our engineers will continue to analyze the situation,” he added, promising to provide more information as soon as possible.
The Hakuto-R program lander, which had been in orbit some 100 kilometers above the Moon for a month, had begun its descent to the lunar surface about an hour earlier. A complex maneuver that was performed entirely automatically. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, but after the scheduled landing time at around 4:40 p.m. GMT on Tuesday, several tens of minutes of anxious waiting ensued, during which company crews attempted to re-establish communication with the lander.
The boss ended up speaking on the company’s live video, announcing the bad news and assuring that ispace would continue its “efforts for future missions”. The success of this mission was far from guaranteed. In April 2019, the Israeli organization SpaceIL saw its probe crash on the surface of the Moon.
So far, only the United States, Russia and China have managed to land robots on the Moon, located about 400,000 km from Earth. India had also tried in 2019 to land a probe, named Vikram, but it crashed.
Measuring 2 by 2.5 meters, the lander was launched in December from the US base at Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX rocket. It carried several small lunar vehicles, including a miniature Japanese model developed by the Japanese Space Agency in collaboration with toymaker Takara Tomy.
Another lunar vehicle (“rover”) built by the United Arab Emirates was also on board. This Gulf country, a newcomer to the space race, sent an orbital probe to Mars in 2021. If its small 10-kilo vehicle, named Rashid, had succeeded in being deployed, it would have carried out the first lunar mission of the Arab World.
The Japanese firm’s Hakuto (“white rabbit” in Japanese) project was one of five finalists in the international Google Lunar XPrize competition, which ended without a winner, with no company having successfully landed a robot before the date set (2018). Two other companies, the American companies Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are due to take off later this year in an attempt to land on the Moon.
These missions are carried out in partnership with NASA, which intends to develop the lunar economy and has commissioned private companies to transport equipment and scientific experiments to the Moon.
The American space agency plans, with its Artemis program, to land astronauts on the lunar surface again in the coming years, to establish a base there, and to build a space station in orbit around the Moon. Japan and the United States announced last year that they would cooperate to send a Japanese astronaut to the moon by the end of the decade.