Japan launched a lunar exploration spacecraft aboard a domestically produced H-IIA rocket on Thursday, hoping to become the fifth country in the world to land on the moon early next year. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the rocket took off as planned from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan and successfully released the Lunar Smart Lander (SLIM). Last month, unfavorable weather caused three postponements in one week.

Dubbed “Moon Sniper” by Japan, the goal is to land SLIM within 100 meters of a target site on the lunar surface. The $100 million (Rs 8.31 crore) mission is expected to start landing in February following a long, fuel-efficient approach trajectory.

“The main goal of SLIM is to demonstrate high-precision landing … to achieve ‘landing where we want’ on the lunar surface, rather than ‘landing where we can,'” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa said at a press conference.

The launch comes two weeks after India traveled to the unexplored lunar south pole with the Chandrayaan-3 mission, becoming the fourth country to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon. Around the same time, Russia’s Luna-25 lander crashed as it approached the Moon.

Japan’s previous two attempts to land on the moon ended in failure last year. JAXA lost contact with the OMOTENASHI lander and called off a landing attempt in November. The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, built by a Japanese startup, crashed in April while attempting to descend to the lunar surface.

SLIM is scheduled to land on the near side of the Moon, near Nectaris, a lunar sea that looks like a dark dot when viewed from Earth. Its main goal is to test advanced optics and image processing techniques.

After landing, the spacecraft aims to analyze the composition of olivine near these sites for clues about the origin of the Moon. There is no rover on board SLIM.

Thursday’s H-IIA rocket also carried the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) satellite, a joint project of JAXA, NASA and the European Space Agency. The mission of the satellite is to observe the winds of plasma flowing through the universe, which scientists believe are key to helping understand the evolution of stars and galaxies.

Manufactured and launched by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, this is the 47th H-IIA rocket launched by Japan since 2001, and the rocket’s success rate is close to 98%.

JAXA has suspended launches of the SLIM-carrying H-IIA for several months while it investigates a glitch on its new medium-sized H3 rocket, which debuted in March.

Japan’s space mission has faced other recent setbacks, with a failed launch of its small Epsilon rocket in October 2022, followed by an engine explosion during a test in July.

The country aims to land an astronaut on the lunar surface in the second half of the 2020s as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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