Japan’s ispace loses contact with its Hakuto-R moon lander

A Japanese start-up that had hoped to become the first commercial company to land successfully on the moon lost contact with its spacecraft Tuesday, the company said, after a tense period in which it tried to reestablish communications with the lander.

The uncrewed Hakuto-R lander, manufactured by ispace, a company based in Tokyo, had descended from lunar orbit and was nearing the moon’s surface when controllers on the ground lost contact with it about 12:40 p.m. Eastern time. Engineers continued to try to communicate with the spacecraft but said they feared the worst.

“We have to assume we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada said during the company’s live broadcast. “Our engineers will continue to investigate the situation. … At this moment what I can tell is we are very proud of the fact that we have already achieved many things during this mission.”

In a statement Tuesday evening, ispace said its ground controllers “confirmed that the lander was in a vertical position as it carried out the final approach to the lunar surface.” But the loss of signal indicates that “there is a high probability that the lander eventually made a hard landing on the moon’s surface.”

The company’s engineers “are currently working on a detailed analysis of the telemetry data acquired until the end of landing sequence and will clarify the details after completing the analysis,” the statement read.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Hakamada said he had told his team members to keep their heads up. “We’ve already achieved great success. … We have to be proud of what we have done, and we’ll keep going.” He added that the team will be able to incorporate any lessons learned into its next attempt, scheduled for next year. He added that landing on the moon “is not easy. But it’s not impossible.”

The attempt was the latest failed robotic lunar-landing mission. In 2019, a privately funded Israeli spacecraft crash-landed on the moon, and later that year, an Indian spacecraft carrying a rover also failed in its attempt to land softly.

By the end of this year, two more companies — Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic, both based in the United States — are expected to attempt moon landings in partnership with NASA as part of the space agency’s Artemis program, as it seeks to start building the infrastructure for human landings.

The ispace mission began when the spacecraft was launched from Florida in December aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It then took a circuitous route to the moon before attempting the landing Tuesday in the Atlas crater of the northeast quadrant of the moon. While leaders at the company expressed confidence that their spacecraft would touch down successfully, they acknowledged the difficulty of a lunar landing and recent failed attempts by others.

The Hakuto-R mission grew out of the Google Lunar XPrize competition, a failed attempt to encourage private-sector efforts to send spacecraft to the moon. After the contest was disbanded without a winner, however, ispace kept its program going.

Its spacecraft was carrying a 22-pound rover developed by the United Arab Emirates, which marked the first Arab lunar mission. Also onboard was a three-inch mobile robot developed by the Japanese space agency and a Japanese toy company that was to take pictures while on the moon.

NASA was not involved in the mission, but ispace has said it hopes to partner with the space agency in the future through its U.S. subsidiary, based in Denver.

In the coming years, NASA is planning to build a sustainable presence on and around the moon, eventually sending astronauts to the lunar south pole to search for water in the form of ice in permanently shadowed craters there. It also intends to assemble a small space station, known as Gateway, to orbit the moon.

China is also eyeing the moon. In 2019, it became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. And it is planning to send astronauts to the lunar south pole.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has said the United States, which is effectively barred by law from cooperating with China in space, is in a space race with China. At a congressional hearing last week, he warned that the United States needs to get its astronauts to the moon before China.

“If you let China get there first, what’s to stop them from saying, ‘We’re here. This is our area. You stay out’? That’s why I think it’s important for us to get there on an international mission and establish the rules of the road,” he said.

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