This Stout Spacecraft From Japan Just Made Moon History

On Friday, Japan successfully placed its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) onto the lunar surface.

A stout robot fires its boosters gently several kilometers above the Moon's surface. This is an illu...

Japan has successfully landed on the Moon, becoming only the fifth country to nail the often-perilous maneuver.

The accomplishment comes one day after Astrobotic’s highly-anticipated Peregrine lander careened into Earth’s atmosphere for controlled self-destruction. Peregrine had to chart this course because, shortly after launch, it suffered a propulsion anomaly that erased Astrobotic’s dreams of becoming the first private company to land on the Moon. But the week would end with some good news, albeit for another organization.

On Friday at 10:00 a.m. Eastern (midnight in Japan), the descent phase began for the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) spacecraft from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The mission’s landing procedure started 15 km above the lunar surface, and it then spent five minutes ascending to reach a brief coasting mode at an altitude of 25 km.

An illustration of JAXA’s SLIM spacecraft on the Moon’s surface.


SLIM scanned the Moon’s surface for features whose locations are highly familiar to astronomers and preexisting spacecraft. This is the mission’s major feature: tracking known landmarks using its onboard navigation system to bring its small spacecraft down for a precise landing within 100 meters of its target.

SLIM traveled accurately along the planned trajectory, an English translator for Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said during Friday’s landing live feed. At 10:08 a.m. Eastern, SLIM began its approach towards the lunar surface.

SLIM’s vertical descent phase officially started at 10:16 a.m. Eastern, when the lander had reached a 5-km altitude. The descent procedure included a few hovering maneuvers, first at 500 meters above the Moon, then 50 meters, and then at just two meters from the ground.

Japan realized it had made history at 10:21 a.m. Eastern, when SLIM telemetry showed the lander safely touched down. The major win, however, is still a month away. That’s when JAXA officials will learn how accurately SLIM got to its target landing spot.

Japan is now the fifth country to successfully land on the Moon. It’s preceded by India, which became the fourth country to land on the Moon just last year. China became the third to do so in 2013. The U.S. was the second country on the Moon in 1969 with Apollo 11, and Russia placed the first robotic lander on the Moon in 1959.

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