Updated 8:15 p.m. Eastern with ispace statement.
WASHINGTON — Controllers lost contact with a lunar lander developed by a Japanese company moments before its scheduled touchdown, making it likely the spacecraft crashed during its final descent.
The HAKUTO-R M1 lunar lander, developed by Tokyo-based ispace, was scheduled to land at 12:40 p.m. Eastern April 25 in the vicinity of Atlas Crater on the moon. The lander was in communications with controllers during its powered descent, based on telemetry displayed on the company’s webcast.
However, that telemetry appeared to switch from live data to a simulation less than 30 seconds before landing, when the spacecraft was still about 80 meters above the surface, traveling at more than 30 kilometers per hour. There was no confirmation of the landing itself or any signals from the lander after touchdown.
More than 25 minutes after the scheduled touchdown, the company appeared to acknowledge that the landing had failed. “At this moment, we have not been able to confirm a successful landing on the lunar surface,” said Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive of ispace. He said controllers had been in contact with the spacecraft until the “very end” of the landing process.
“However, now we’ve lost the communication,” he said. “So, we have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface.”
In a statement issued about six hours later, ispace said that, during the lander’s final approach to the surface, “estimated remaining propellant reached at the lower threshold and shortly afterward the descent speed rapidly increased,” suggesting that the lander ran out of propellant, causing its engines to shut down prematurely. Controllers then lost contact with the lander.
“Based on this, it has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander eventually made a hard landing on the Moon’s surface,” the company stated. “For Mission 1, it has been determined that Success 9 of the Mission 1 Milestones, successfully landing on the Moon and establishing communications, is no longer achievable.”
The lander was carrying a set of payloads for both companies and governments. Among them is Rashid, a small lunar rover developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in the United Arab Emirates, and a “transformable lunar robot” the size of a baseball from Japan’s space agency JAXA. Other payloads include cameras and technology demonstrations.
The lander launched on a Falcon 9 Dec. 11, placing it on a low-energy ballistic trajectory that took it as far as 1.4 million kilometers from the Earth before returning to the vicinity of the moon, going into an elliptical orbit around the moon March 20.
After achieving its initial orbit of 100 by 6,000 kilometers, the spacecraft maneuvered to lower its orbit, reaching a circular orbit at an altitude of 100 kilometers by April 14. Around that time, ispace announced plans for the April 25 landing attempt.
The company reported only minor issues with the spacecraft during its transit to the moon. “We have been operating our lander as well as expected so far, without any critical issues,” Hakamada said during a Feb. 27 briefing. There had been anomalies with the lander’s thermal control system and computers, but the company said it was able to resolve those problems.
The company is working on a second lander, M2, similar in design to M1 that is scheduled for launch in late 2024. It will carry a set of customer payloads as well as a “micro rover” that ispace developed. That rover will collect a regolith sample that will be transferred to NASA under a 2020 contract awarded to ispace’s European subsidiary.
Company officials said in February that they did not anticipate making significant changes in the design of M2, having already incorporated lessons learned from the development of the M1 lander into M2. The company’s U.S. subsidiary is working on a larger lander, Series 2, for a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services mission led by Draper scheduled for 2025.
Hakamada, in the post-landing comments, said the data collected during the M1 landing attempt would be helpful for those two future missions. “That’s why we built a sustainable business model to continue our effort for the future missions.”
“Although we do not expect to complete the lunar landing at this time, we believe that we have fully accomplished the significance of this mission, having acquired a great deal of data and experience by being able to execute the landing phase,” Hakamada said in the later statement. “What is important is to feed this knowledge and learning back to Mission 2 and beyond so that we can make the most of this experience.”
“As a fellow Japanese space enthusiast, I am proud of ispace’s challenge and respect the efforts of everyone involved. ispace will analyze the data obtained from this mission and use it as a foundation for the next mission,” Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, said in the ispace statement.
Since the launch of M1, shares in ispace started trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange Growth Market, an exchanged reserved for smaller, higher-risk companies. The shares started trading April 13 at 254 yen ($1.90) and soared in subsequent days. Shares closed April 25, before the landing, at 1,990 yen.