Japan’s space agency announced on Thursday that its unmanned Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), affectionately dubbed the “Moon Sniper,” executed a successful pin-point landing on the Moon.
The craft overcame last-minute engine problems during its descent, capturing the attention of the global space community. Images released by the agency showcased the boxy yellow lander positioned intact at a slight angle on the rocky lunar surface, with lunar slopes extending into the distance.
The Saturday landing marked Japan as the fifth nation to accomplish a soft lunar landing, joining the ranks of the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and India. The mission aimed for an extraordinary level of precision, with SLIM targeting a landing within 100 meters (330 feet) of a specific crater, surpassing the typical landing zone range of several kilometers. Despite engine issues, the space agency confirmed the landing point at a mere 55 meters away from the intended target.
During its descent, SLIM encountered engine problems that may have affected its trajectory, according to Shinichiro Sakai, the project manager. Additionally, challenges with the lightweight spacecraft’s solar batteries were noted, as they failed to generate power. Approximately three hours after landing, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) decided to power off SLIM with 12 percent remaining power, with plans to potentially resume operations when the sun’s angle changes, estimated by February 1.
The mission had a specific focus on exploring a crater believed to expose the Moon’s mantle, the typically concealed inner layer beneath the crust. By analyzing rocks from this site, JAXA aims to unravel the mystery of potential water resources on the Moon, a crucial aspect for future lunar bases and potential stopovers en route to Mars.
Despite facing technical challenges, mission control successfully downloaded technical and image data from SLIM’s descent and lunar surface exploration before the craft was powered down. Two probes detached from SLIM, one with a transmitter and another designed as a shape-shifting mini-rover slightly larger than a tennis ball. This rover, co-developed by the creators of Transformer toys, is equipped to trundle around the lunar surface, beaming images back to Earth.
Japan’s accomplishment comes amid a flurry of lunar missions, both governmental and private, occurring 50 years after the first human Moon landing. While technical issues persist, the successful landing of the “Moon Sniper” highlights Japan’s resilience in the face of lunar exploration challenges.