A Japanese startup’s dreams of becoming the first private company to land on the moon were shattered after its robot likely crashed on the lunar surface.
ispace’s Hakuto-R Mission 1 (M1) lander was set to touch down in the Atlas Crater at 12:40pm ET.
The simulation of the lander showed it had touched down on the cratered surface, but controllers could not confirm it due to a loss in communication.
ispace founder Takeshi Hakamada said during the livestream: ‘We have to assume that we did not complete the landing on the lunar surface.’
While teams do not know what caused the failure, the company had previously said there was an ‘inevitable risk’ activating sensors to slow M1 down because it will be the first and only use of the technology in a lunar environment.
The craft activated its sensor to adjust its altitude and speed of 3,700 miles per hour as it traveled to the lunar surface.
Controllers peered at their screens in Tokyo, expressionless, as the minutes went by with still no word from the lander.
A webcast commentator urged everyone to be patient as the controllers investigated what might have happened. Contact was lost as the lander descended the final 33 feet, traveling around 16 miles per hour.
‘Everyone, please give us a few minutes to confirm,’ the webcaster said in the stream.
But at around 1:05, ispace shared the solemn news and noted that ‘mission controllers are still investigating.’
The mission would have put ispace ahead of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin – both companies are vying to make their claim on the moon.
Musk is set to launch humans to the moon with NASA during the epic Artemis mission in 2025, and Bezos has long-shared dreams of colonizing Earth’s natural satellite.
However, ispace is the first private company to attempt a moon landing – so some see this mission as a success.
This is not just a loss for ispace, but M1 was carrying the United Arab Emirates’ Rashid rover that would have been the nation’s first push into the space industry.
The craft had also housed a two-wheeled robot built by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Rashid would have been the UAE’s first mission to the moon and is planned to explore the Atlas crater, which has yet to be investigated by robots.
Named Rashid after Dubai’s royal family, the device will collect ‘novel and highly valued’ scientific data, according to Emirates project manager Hamad Almarzooqi.
JAXA’s robot, the size of a baseball, was tasked with collecting data on the lunar surface, including regolith, that could help to develop autonomous-driving technology.
Two Canadian companies contributed some 360-degree cameras and a flight computer, which used artificial intelligence to identify geological features seen by the UAE rover.
Private company ispace designed its craft to use minimal fuel to save money and leave more room for cargo, so it’s taking a slow, low-energy path to the moon.
In contrast to its five-month mission, NASA’s Orion crew capsule with test dummies took five days to reach the moon last month.
ispace has announced three alternative landing sites and could shift the lunar descent date to April 26, May 1 or May 3, depending on conditions.
Hakuto means ‘white rabbit’ in Japanese and references Japanese folklore that a white rabbit lives on the Moon.
The project was one of five finalists in Google’s Lunar X Prize competition to land a rover on the Moon before a 2018 deadline, which passed without a winner.
ispace has said it ‘aims to extend the sphere of human life into space and create a sustainable world by providing high-frequency, low-cost transportation services to the Moon.’
Hakamada has touted the mission as laying ‘the groundwork for unleashing the Moon’s potential and transforming it into a robust and vibrant economic system.’
The firm believes the Moon will support 1,000 people by 2040, with 10,000 more visiting each year.
It plans a second mission, tentatively scheduled for next year, involving a lunar landing and the deployment of its own rover.
M1 launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December that blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.