After more than three months of flying in space, the Japanese lunar probe arrived on the moon on Christmas Day.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — the Japanese counterpart to NASA, known as JAXA for short — announced that its lunar mission had achieved a major milestone on December 25, successfully entering an oval orbit around the moon’s north and south poles. Over the next month, its orbit will gradually become more circular before attempting to land.
Whether the spacecraft will succeed in this regard is anybody’s guess: About half of all attempts to land on the moon have failed, and only one of the three missions that attempted to touch the moon in 2023 succeeded without disaster. In August, India became the fourth country to land on the moon, joining the former Soviet Union, the United States and China as the only spacefaring nations to achieve the feat. Attempts by Russia and a private Japanese startup company, both robotic spacecraft, failed.
Getting to the moon, about a quarter of a million miles from Earth, isn’t even half the battle. But so far, the SLIM mission, short for Smart Lander for Lunar Exploration, hasn’t disappointed with its close-up lunar photography session. As the spacecraft rose about 370 miles above the surface, it captured images with its navigation camera, revealing a lunar surface pockmarked and splattered with craters.
A spacecraft sends an unusual view of Earth and the Moon
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Apollo moon landing deniers have taught us that even pictures are sometimes not enough to convince conspiracy theorists. So JAXA stitched together some of the lunar images into a flipbook-like video (shown above in this X post) — further evidence of the remarkable event.
“You can see that SLIM is indeed moving over the lunar surface,” the Japanese space agency told X, formerly Twitter, according to a Google translation.
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The SLIM mission launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center on September 7 and is expected to land near Shioli Crater on the near side of the moon on January 20. Its goal is to demonstrate a so-called “precision landing” to an accuracy of less than 100 yards, a level of precision unprecedented for a moon landing. Most landing targets have a range of many square miles.
As the uncrewed SLIM spacecraft rose about 370 miles above Earth, it took pictures with its navigation camera, revealing a lunar surface pockmarked and spattered with craters.
Credit: JAXA / SLIM
If Japan succeeds, it will be the fifth nation to put a spacecraft on the moon.
That would put it several weeks ahead of US-based Astrobotic Technologies’ lunar landing effort, which will attempt to bring five NASA instruments to the surface, among other payloads. In April, a private Japanese company, ispace, also attempted to land on the moon, but it ran out of fuel on descent and eventually crashed.
Some 60 years have passed since the first unmanned lunar landing, but the touch remains heavy. The moon’s exosphere—an extremely thin atmosphere of gases barely held back by the moon’s gravity—provides virtually no drag to slow a spacecraft as it nears Earth. Also, there are no GPS systems on the Moon to help guide the craft to its landing site.
If the SLIM mission succeeds, Japan will be the fifth nation to put a spacecraft on the moon.
Credit: JAXA / SLIM
For decades, no one seemed interested in returning to the surface of the moon, but that has changed in recent years, with NASA’s Artemis campaign spurring them on. Several nations and private companies have eyed the moon’s south pole for its ice, which is believed to be buried there in permanently shadowed craters. The natural resource is desirable because it can supply potable water, oxygen and rocket fuel for future missions.
That means the moon could one day become more than just a celestial destination, but a stop on the way to Mars — or possibly even other worlds.