Japanese Commercial Lunar Lander Fails on Landing

Japanese Commercial Lunar Lander Fails on Landing

Hakuto-R Mission 1, a commercial lunar lander built by Japan’s ispace, landed on the Moon today. It did not survive, however. Exactly what happened to the lander and the United Arab Emirates’ Rashid rover is still being investigated, but the company conceded this evening that it made a hard landing and has not been heard from since.

ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada announces that Mission Control cannot confirm the status of the lander and they must assume it was not successful. Screengrab.

About 20 minutes after the 12:40 pm EDT landing (1:40 am April 26 Japan Standard Time), Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, told everyone in the room and the livestream audience that communications with the spacecraft continued until the very end of the landing, but lost thereafter.

“We have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface.”

The landing was autonomous. All mission controllers could do is wait for the spacecraft to report back to Earth.

At the time, ispace did not definitively call it a failure while they assessed the situation, but this evening issued a press release suggesting the lander ran out of fuel. Propellant reached “the lower threshold and shortly afterward the descent speed increased rapidly.”

Based on the currently available data, the HAKUTO-R Mission Control Center in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, confirmed that the lander was in a vertical position as it carried out the final approach to the lunar surface. Shortly after the scheduled landing time, no data was received indicating a touchdown. ispace engineers monitored the estimated remaining propellant reached at the lower threshold and shortly afterward the descent speed rapidly increased. After that, the communication loss happened. Based on this, it has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander eventually made a hard landing on the Moon’s surface.

To find the root cause of this situation, ispace engineers are currently working on a detailed analysis of the telemetry date acquired until the end of landing sequence and will clarify the details after completing the analysis.

Hakamada stressed the positive, congratulating the team for all they did accomplish and vowing to move forward.

ispace has two other missions in the works already. Hakuto-R Mission 2 is under construction for launch next year and Mission 3 is planned for 2025 as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Only U.S. companies can compete for NASA CLPS missions, but ispace is partnered with Draper, which won a task order to take three NASA payloads to Schrödinger Basin on the far side of the Moon in 2025.

Members of ispace’s Hakuto-R M1 team as CEO Takeshi Hakamada (with microphone) announces the landing apparently was not a success.Screengrab.

Hakuto-R M1 is the third small spacecraft to attempt a landing on the Moon. The first two also failed. An Israeli non-profit, SpaceIL, sent the privately-funded Beresheet lander to the Moon in early 2019, but it failed in the last moments. A few months later, the Indian Space Research Organisation sent Chandrayann-2, but communications similarly were lost just before landing.

SpaceIL and ispace both began as competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize, which ended in 2018 after no one won the $20 million Grand Prize despite years of extending the deadline.

Hakamada thanked “all the employees and also our families and our shareholders and partners and customers and everyone who believe in the ispace vision. We will keep going. Never quit the lunar quest.”

He pointed to what they achieved in Mission 1, including acquiring “actual flight data during the landing phase” that will be important for the next two missions.

They also captured spectacular images including this “earthrise” photo as Hakuto-R 1M came out from behind the Moon and could see Earth again.

Image of Earth from ispace’s Hakuto-R M1 spacecraft. Credit: ispace.inc. Screengrab from YouTube livestream of Hakuto-R 1M landing.

ispace is a private company, but works closely with Japan’s space agency, JAXA.  A  baseball-sized transformable robot developed by JAXA, TOMY company, Sony, and Doshisha University was aboard. JAXA president Hiroshi Yamakawa was among those offering praise for the effort and looking forward to future missions. “As a fellow Japanese space enthusiast, I am proud of ispace’s challenge and respect the efforts of everyone involved. ispace will analyze the data obtained from this mission and use it as a foundation for the next mission.”

The UAE’s 10 kilogram Rashid rover also was lost. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre issued a statement via Twitter on April 26 commending ispace’s efforts even if not successful and asserting the MBRSC team is “inspired and believe that greater accomplishments are yet to come in our pursuit of space exploration.”

The Soviet Union, the United States and China are the only countries to successfully land on the Moon. Those spacecraft were much larger and developed by government space agencies. Chandrayaan-2 had the backing of India’s space agency, but Beresheet and Hakuto-R are part of a new wave of privately-funded attempts to send small spacecraft to the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system.

NASA has embraced this concept in the CLPS program. NASA contracts with private sector companies to deliver NASA science and technology payloads to the lunar surface. The companies provide the spacecraft and launch vehicle. NASA provides money and payloads with the expectation the companies will find other customers to close the business case.

When Jim Bridenstine and Thomas Zurbuchen, then NASA Administrator and Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate respectively, announced the CLPS program in 2018 they acknowledged the risks and said it would be like taking “shots on goal” and a 50-50 success rate was acceptable.

That has yet to be tested. The first CLPS missions were supposed to launch in 2021, but they slipped to this year. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander was on track to be the first CLPS launch on the inaugural flight of the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket on May 4, but ULA had to postpone the launch due to a technical problem involving the Centaur V upper stage. A new launch date is pending. Intuitive Machines (IM) is using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch its Nova-C lander this summer.

Astrobotic has won two CLPS task orders, while IM won three. Firefly and Draper won one each. Masten Space Systems also won a task order, but the company went bankrupt and NASA plans to reassign the payloads to other CLPS missions.

The point is that landing on the Moon — or anywhere in the solar system — is difficult enough when attempted by government space agencies with considerable resources. Small space companies like ispace launching small spacecraft that may not have as many redundant systems, for example, is all that much harder.

CLPS is part of NASA’s Lunar Development and Exploration Program in the Science Mission Directorate. The FY2024 request for LDEP is $458.5 million.


This article has been updated.

User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.