Japan’s Lunar Spacecraft Is on the Moon, but Status Unclear

tokyo — Japan’s spacecraft arrived on the surface of the moon early Saturday, but it wasn’t immediately clear if the landing was a success, because the Japanese space agency said it was still “checking its status.”

More details about the spacecraft, which is carrying no astronauts, would be given at a news conference, officials said. If the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, landed successfully, Japan would become the fifth country to accomplish the feat after the United States, the Soviet Union, China and India.

SLIM came down onto the lunar surface at around 12:20 a.m. Tokyo time Saturday (1520 GMT Friday).

As the spacecraft descended, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s mission control said that everything was going as planned and later said that SLIM was on the lunar surface. But there was no mention of whether the landing was successful.

Mission control kept repeating that it was “checking its status” and that more information would be given at a news conference. It wasn’t immediately clear when the news conference would start.

SLIM, nicknamed “the Moon Sniper,” started its descent at midnight Saturday, and within 15 minutes it was down to about 10 kilometers (six miles) above the lunar surface, according to the space agency, which is known as JAXA.

At an altitude of five kilometers (three miles), the lander was in a vertical descent mode, then at 50 meters (165 feet) above the surface, SLIM was supposed to make a parallel movement to find a safe landing spot, JAXA said.

About a half-hour after its presumed landing, JAXA said that it was still checking the status of the lander.

SLIM, which was aiming to hit a very small target, is a lightweight spacecraft about the size of a passenger vehicle. It was using “pinpoint landing” technology that promises far greater control than any previous moon landing.

While most previous probes have used landing zones about 10 kilometers (six miles) wide, SLIM was aiming at a target of just 100 meters (330 feet).

The project was the fruit of two decades of work on precision technology by JAXA.

The mission’s main goal is to test new landing technology that would allow moon missions to land “where we want to, rather than where it is easy to land,” JAXA has said. If the landing was a success, the spacecraft will seek clues about the origin of the moon, including analyzing minerals with a special camera.

The SLIM, equipped with a pad to cushion impact, was aiming to land near the Shioli crater, near a region covered in volcanic rock.

The closely watched mission came only 10 days after a moon mission by a U.S. private company failed when the spacecraft developed a fuel leak hours after the launch.

SLIM was launched on a Mitsubishi Heavy H2A rocket in September. It initially orbited Earth and entered lunar orbit on Dec. 25.

Japan hopes a success will help regain confidence for its space technology after a number of failures. A spacecraft designed by a Japanese company crashed during a lunar landing attempt in April, and a new flagship rocket failed its debut launch in March.

JAXA has a track record with difficult landings. Its Hayabusa2 spacecraft, launched in 2014, touched down twice on the 900-meter-long (3,000-foot-long) asteroid Ryugu, collecting samples that were returned to Earth.

Experts say a success of SLIM’s pinpoint landing, especially on the moon, would raise Japan’s profile in the global space technology race.

Takeshi Tsuchiya, aeronautics professor at the Graduate School of Engineering at the University of Tokyo, said it was important to confirm the accuracy of landing on a targeted area for the future of moon explorations.

“It is necessary to show the world that Japan has the appropriate technology in order to be able to properly assert Japan’s position in lunar development,” he said. The moon is important from the perspective of explorations of resources, and it can also be used as a base to go to other planets, like Mars, he said.

SLIM is carrying two small autonomous probes — lunar excursion vehicles LEV-1 and LEV-2, which were due to be released just before landing.

LEV-1, equipped with an antenna and a camera, is tasked with recording SLIM’s landing. LEV-2, is a ball-shaped rover equipped with two cameras, developed by JAXA together with Sony, toymaker Tomy and Doshisha University.

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