Japan has launched a rocket carrying a lunar exploration spacecraft as the country looks to become the world’s fifth to land on the moon.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the homegrown H-IIA rocket took off from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan on Thursday and successfully released the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM).
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Dubbed the “Moon Sniper”, JAXA aims to land SLIM within 100 metres (328 feet) of its target site on the lunar surface.
That is much less than the usual range of several kilometres.
“By creating the SLIM lander, humans will make a qualitative shift towards being able to land where we want and not just where it is easy to land,” JAXA said before the launch. “By achieving this, it will become possible to land on planets even more resource-scarce than the Moon.”
Globally, “there are no previous instances of pinpoint landing on celestial bodies with significant gravity such as the Moon”, JAXA added.
The $100m mission is expected to reach the moon by February next year.
Only four nations have successfully landed on the moon – the United States, Russia, China and India.
India landed its spacecraft last month near the moon’s unexplored south pole in a historic triumph for its low-cost space programme.
The success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission came days after a Russian probe crashed in the same region, and four years after a previous Indian attempt failed at the last moment.
Past Japanese attempts have also gone wrong, including last year when it sent a lunar probe named Omotenashi as part of the United States’ Artemis 1 mission. The size of a backpack, Omotenashi would have been the world’s smallest Moon lander, but JAXA lost contact with the spacecraft and scrubbed a landing in November.
The Japanese Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, made by startup ispace, also crashed in April as it attempted to descend to the lunar surface.
The H-IIA rocket launched on Thursday also carried the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) satellite, a joint project of JAXA, NASA and the European Space Agency.
The XRISM will measure the speed and makeup of what lies between galaxies, information that JAXA said will help in studying how celestial objects were formed and hopefully lead to solving the mystery of how the universe was created.
David Alexander, director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University in the US, said XRISM is significant for delivering insight into the properties of hot plasma, or the superheated matter that makes up much of the universe.
Plasmas have the potential to be used in various ways, including healing wounds, making computer chips and cleaning the environment.
“Understanding the distribution of this hot plasma in space and time, as well as its dynamical motion, will shed light on diverse phenomena such as black holes, the evolution of chemical elements in the universe and the formation of galactic clusters,” Alexander told The Associated Press news agency.
The H-IIA rocket that carried SLIM and XRISM was manufactured and operated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, marking the 47th rocket of that type that Japan has launched since 2001. That brings the vehicle’s success rate close to 98 percent.
JAXA had suspended the launch of H-IIA carrying SLIM for several months while it investigated the failure of its new medium-lift H3 rocket during its debut in March.
Japan’s space missions have faced other recent setbacks, with the launch failure of the Epsilon small rocket in October 2022, followed by an engine explosion during a test in July.
The country plans to send astronauts to the moon in the late 2020s.