Japan has launched two ambitious space missions on a single rocket, aiming to land a craft on the moon and position a separate X-ray telescope in Earth orbit.
The Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) will, if successful, make Japan only the fifth country after the US, the Soviet Union, China and India to make a soft landing on the moon. It has been nicknamed “Moon Sniper” by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) because it is designed to use a host of sensors and cameras to make a highly accurate landing within a circle with a radius of just 100 metres.
The mission is the third moonshot in the past two months, after India launched its Chandrayaan-3 mission on 14 July and Russia began its Luna 25 mission on 10 August. Luna 25 overtook Chandrayaan-3 on its way to the moon, but ended in failure with a catastrophic crash, while India’s mission went perfectly to plan.
SLIM also comes after the failure of two previous Japanese moon missions, OMOTENASHI and the privately built Hakuto-R. It was launched on a H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center on 7 September, first deploying the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) telescope a little over 14 minutes after take-off and then separating the SLIM mission after around 47 minutes. The launch had been scheduled for 23 August but was delayed due to poor weather conditions.
The moon probe will take up to four months to reach lunar orbit using a fuel-efficient route, then spend around a month orbiting before attempting a landing in 2024. It will land on its five legs, with the shock being absorbed by a 3D-printed aluminium dome.
After landing, it will deploy a spherical probe called Sora-Q, which is slightly larger than a tennis ball and partly designed by the Japanese toy-maker responsible for creating Transformers, to roll across the lunar surface, as well as a second probe called Lunar Excursion Vehicle 1 (LEV-1), which will “hop” across the surface.
XRISM is a collaboration between JAXA, NASA and the European Space Agency and will provide astronomers and astrophysicists with a way to explore deep space as it orbits Earth at an altitude of around 550 kilometres. JAXA didn’t respond to a request for interview, but announced that XRISM has deployed its solar panels and made radio contact with a base station on Earth.