Japan Launches Lunar Exploration: Initiates Mission with X-Ray Satellite and ‘Moon Sniper’ Lander
“The successful launch of Japan’s H-2A rocket carrying the Luna Sniper lunar lander and a new X-ray satellite telescope marks a pivotal moment for the Japanese space program. The satellite telescope, named PRISM, is already in Earth orbit and will study galaxy clusters, black holes, and the chemical composition of the universe. Japan’s smart lander, known as Slim, is set to arrive in lunar orbit in the coming months and will attempt a soft landing on the moon using high-precision vision-based navigation technology. This approach has earned it the nickname ‘Moon Style.’
Japan has embarked on a new lunar exploration mission to become the world’s fifth country to successfully land on the moon. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched a lunar exploration spacecraft named the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) on Thursday aboard a homegrown H-IIA rocket. Here’s a comprehensive look at this exciting mission.
The Launch and Objectives:
The rocket took off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, following several postponements due to unfavorable weather conditions. The mission, often referred to as the “Moon Sniper,” is a crucial step for Japan in achieving precise lunar landings. JAXA aims to land SLIM within 100 meters of its target site on the lunar surface, representing a significant improvement in accuracy compared to previous missions.
JAXA‘s President Hiroshi Yamakawa stated that the primary objective of SLIM is to prove high-accuracy lunar landings, demonstrating the capability to land precisely where intended, rather than merely where it’s feasible. Hours after launch, JAXA confirmed that SLIM was operating normally.
The Lunar Landing Site and Scientific Goals
SLIM is set to touch down on the near side of the moon, near Mare Nectaris, a lunar sea visible as a dark spot from Earth. Its primary scientific goal is to analyze the composition of olivine rocks in the vicinity, providing valuable insights into the moon’s origin.
Unlike some other lunar missions, SLIM does not carry a rover. Instead, it relies on advanced optical and image processing technology for its scientific observations.
Retired NASA astronaut Leroy Chow reflected on the significance of this mission, emphasizing that it represents a major milestone for Japan, despite three delays and a year of setbacks and failures leading up to the launch. This is Japan’s inaugural lunar probe, and while they have successfully launched it, the ultimate challenge remains: achieving a soft landing on the moon. The primary objective of this mission is indeed the successful lunar landing, though it also includes scientific instruments. The overarching goal is to establish Japan as a lunar power.
“Space.com reports that the spacecraft will take a fuel-efficient route to the moon, reaching lunar orbit in approximately three to four months. It will be another month before attempting the actual touchdown. This approach signifies a shift towards landing in specific locations.”
Landing on the moon is a complex undertaking, with only four countries having accomplished it to date, and many others experiencing failures. Japan’s meticulous approach, including conserving fuel and employing image-based navigation, underscores its commitment to success. The vision landing system will scan for unforeseen obstructions, allowing for adjustments to avoid potential issues.
The main payload of this mission is the X-ray telescope, heralded by NASA as a new generation of high-resolution X-ray imaging technology. It will assist scientists and astronomers in studying stars and galaxies, including particles launched at nearly the speed of light by supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies.
This X-ray observatory is a vital addition to the array of observatories, complementing those operating in other spectral bands, such as visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, and radar astronomy. These observatories collectively provide data that aid astronomers and astrophysicists in constructing a comprehensive picture of the observable universe.
The launch also carried the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) satellite, a joint project involving JAXA, NASA, and the European Space Agency. XRISM is tasked with observing plasma winds in the universe, crucial for understanding the evolution of stars and galaxies.
Japan’s Recent Lunar Challenges
Japan’s previous attempts at lunar landings faced setbacks, with the loss of contact with the OMOTENASHI lander and the crash of the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander in recent years. These challenges highlight the significance of the SLIM mission’s objectives in achieving pinpoint lunar landings.
Future Lunar Exploration Plans
Japan is not only focused on this mission but also has ambitious future lunar plans. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is working on the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX), a joint venture with the Indian Space Research Organisation beyond 2025, where the next lunar lander from India will launch on a Japanese H3 rocket. Additionally, Japan aims to send an astronaut to the moon’s surface in the latter half of the 2020s as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
The Significance of “Moon Sniper”
The SLIM mission is significant not only for Japan but also for lunar exploration as a whole. Precision landings on celestial bodies with significant gravity, such as the moon, are challenging, and SLIM’s success could open up opportunities for more resource-scarce celestial bodies.
X-Ray Telescope XRISM
Alongside SLIM, the launch included the XRISM satellite, designed to observe celestial objects in X-ray wavelengths. This satellite will help researchers gain insights into the most energetic events and objects in the universe, such as stellar explosions and black holes.
The Future of Lunar Exploration
The launch of SLIM and XRISM comes at a time when lunar exploration is gaining momentum. Only four countries—the United States, Russia, China, and India—have successfully landed probes on the moon. Japan’s renewed focus on lunar exploration demonstrates humanity’s continued fascination with our celestial neighbour and the potential for groundbreaking scientific discoveries.
Japan’s “Moon Sniper” mission marks an important step in the country’s space program’s efforts to overcome past setbacks and achieve precise lunar landings. The success of this mission could pave the way for more accurate and controlled landings on the moon and other celestial bodies, unlocking new possibilities for scientific exploration and resource utilization.