Japan is on its final approach to becoming only the fifth country to land on the moon, in what would be a reversal of fortunes as it seeks to join a global space race aimed at solving the mysteries of the unraveling lunar landscape.
If all goes according to plan, the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (Smart) will begin its descent to the rocky lunar surface at midnight (1500 GMT) on Friday before touching down about 20 minutes later, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa).
The mission will determine whether the spacecraft earns its nickname “moon sniper” – a reference to his ability to land with unprecedented precision under notoriously difficult conditions.
Jaxa officials hope that precision technology will land the lightweight craft within 100 meters of a predetermined target on the moon’s surface – a dramatic improvement on previous missions, in which the landing zones measured several kilometers.
Success will mark a transition from an era of “land where we can” to one of “land where we want” for future missions, Jaxa said.
It would also add Japan to a short list of countries that have accomplished the feat – the US, the Soviet Union, China and India – and ease the disappointment of recent setbacks to its space program.
In November 2022, Japan abandoned efforts to land the lunar probe Omotenashi on the moon; and in April 2023, a Japanese start-up aiming to become the first private firm to land on the moon lost contact with his vessel after it made a “hard landing”..
Slim entered lunar orbit on Christmas Day, 110 days after its September launch, which followed a failed liftoff in May and a second delay in August due to bad weather. It is expected to land on a crater where the moon’s mantle – the deep inner layer beneath its crust – is believed to be accessible on the surface.
“The rocks exposed here are crucial in the search for the origin of the moon and the earth,” Tomokatsu Morota, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo who specializes in lunar and planetary exploration, told Agence France-Presse said.
The mission could also investigate how potential water resources could be harnessed to build bases on the moon. The possibility of lunar commercialization will depend on whether there is water at the poles, Morota said.
Jack landed a spacecraft on a speeding asteroid in 2019, but experts say the challenges are greater on the moon, where gravity is stronger.
The craft, whose attempt at landing will be broadcast livewill have only one attempt to make a successful landing, meaning precision will be key if it has to touch down in an area surrounded by rocks, which it will survey with a camera, Morota added.
Slim is equipped with a “rolling” robot – a spherical rover slightly larger than a tennis ball that can change its shape as it negotiates the contours of the moon’s surface. Jointly developed by Jaxa and Japanese toy maker Takara Tomy, the probe is a video game released online by Jaxa in which players are invited to make their own moon landing.
A successful mission would mark Japan’s involvement in a new era of lunar exploration, a few months after India became the first country to land an unmanned craft near the moon’s largely unexplored south pole.
It’s been 54 years since humans first sat on the lunar surface – and the last crewed mission was in 1972 – but governments and private companies have never lost their fascination with Earth’s satellite, amid a strong belief among scientists that it is a accessible source of water.
But lunar missions are fraught with problems. A private American lunar lander last week failed en route after leaking fueland was expected to fall back into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. Nasa announced a delayed grid for sending men to the moon under its Artemis program. Russia, China and other countries, including South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, are also planning missions.