Japan launched its “moon sniper” lunar spacecraft from its southern coast on Thursday in an effort to become the fifth nation in the world to land an object on the moon, amid an ongoing global race to explore the lunar surface.
The lunar craft officially known as Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM)—also referred to as the “moon sniper”— was launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s own HII-A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center.
The SLIM spacecraft is expected to land on the moon’s surface sometime in January of February next year after taking a long but more fuel efficient path.
If successful, Japan will become only the fifth nation after the U.S., Russia, China and most recently India, to successfully carry out a soft landing on the moon.
What make’s Japan’s attempt unique is that it is trying to pull off a precision landing on the moon within only 100 meters (328 feet) of a designated target using advanced image-based navigation.
The HII-A rocket launched on Thursday also carried an advanced X-ray imaging satellite on board as part of a joint mission with NASA.
The launch is the world’s third moon mission in the past two months after Russia’s failed Luna-25 mission and India’s successful Chandrayaan-3. Before the Indian and Russian missions, Japanese private space firm iSpace attempted to land its Hakuto-R lander on the moon, but the mission failed as the spacecraft crashed while attempting to land. JAXA’s plan to land its OMOTENASHI spacecraft on the moon was canceled in November last year after the agency lost contact with the lander. The only successful moon landing this year was pulled off last month by the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-3 (Mooncraft-3) as it became the first to make a successful landing near the moon’s scarcely explored South Pole.
After the success of Chandrayaan-3, ISRO is set to collaborate with JAXA for its Chandrayaan-4 mission—also known as the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX). ISRO will build the lander for the mission while JAXA will provide its H3 rocket. Like its predecessor LUPEX will focus on the moon’s South Pole.
Japan’s attempt comes amid renewed interest in exploring the lunar surface with a focus on the moon’s south pole. Both the U.S. and China are planning their own, more complex moon missions later this decade, starting with NASA’s crewed Artemis mission sometime around 2025, with a planned landing near the South Pole. China has two lunar missions scheduled this decade, with a plan to land a rover near the moon’s South Pole in 2026. These are expected to be followed by a crewed mission in 2030, with a plan to establish an outpost on the moon. NASA has expressed alarm about China’s plans, with its chief Bill Nelson claiming that Beijing may try to use its missions to occupy the South Pole like they have with “some international islands in the South China Sea.” These allegations have been dismissed by Chinese officials.
In new space race, Japan ups ante with launch of two key missions (Japan Times)
Japanese Rocket Takes Off for Moon After Troublesome Year (Bloomberg)
India Makes Historic Moon Landing Amid Global Race To The Lunar South Pole (Forbes)