The Japanese space agency on Monday postponed the planned launch of what is expected to be the first Japanese spacecraft to land on the moon due to strong high-altitude winds.
Japan aims to have the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) in space by mid-September, with a moon landing scheduled to begin as early as January 2024.
Japan would be the fifth country to land on the moon, after the US, the former USSR, China and now India. The success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar exploration mission this month contrasts with recent setbacks in Japan’s space missions.
WHAT IS JAPAN’S MOON MISSION?
The SLIM project has been in development for more than two decades and focuses on using advanced, image-based navigation technology and lightweight hardware to achieve high-precision landing.
Dubbed the “Moon Sniper,” the SLIM is designed to land no more than 100 meters from its target location. According to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), that’s a huge leap from the traditional multi-kilometer accuracy for lunar landers.
By building a lightweight lander, JAXA hopes to reduce launch costs and allow for more frequent missions. SLIM weighs just over 700 kg (1,540 lb) at launch, less than half that of India’s Chandrayaan-3.
It uses an efficient chemical propulsion system and includes miniaturized electronic devices.
The total development cost of SLIM this year was about 15 billion yen (US$102 million). India launched its lander with a budget of around US$75 million.
WHY IS TECHNOLOGY IMPORTANT?
The “pinpoint” landing technology allows for a more detailed search for rocks and water resources, and increases the spacecraft’s chances of survival by helping it choose the best site for solar power generation and avoiding rough terrain, says JAXA.
SLIM is scheduled to land on the slope of Shioli Crater near the lunar sea Mare Nectaris. The site was chosen using high-resolution images from lunar orbiters.
According to JAXA, SLIM uses “vision-based navigation” to recognize where it is going during the landing phase. This allows the ship to compare real-time images from its camera with existing images of the lunar surface.
WHY IS JAPAN’S SPACE PROGRAM IMPORTANT?
Although 14 Japanese astronauts were in space – the fourth most after the United States, Russia (including the former Soviet Union), and China – Japan’s space missions focused on developing launch vehicles and spacecraft, and relied on the United States and Russia for astronaut carriage.
Japan aims to send an astronaut to the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Artemis program in the second half of the 2020s.
Japan’s advanced imaging technology, as used in SLIM, is seen as an important part of its response to China’s growing military presence in space.
What about the recent setbacks?
SLIM’s launch was delayed by a few months after JAXA manually destroyed the original model of the new H3 medium rocket due to engine ignition problems after launch in March.
JAXA also failed to launch an Epsilon small rocket in October 2022, which resulted in an engine explosion during a test last month.
The government says private sector projects should play a bigger role. Start-ups like ispace and Astroscale, a debris-clearing company, have entered the market and raised hundreds of millions of dollars in addition to traditional industrial heavyweights like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
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