Japan has just made history by becoming the fifth country to successfully land on the Moon. Along the way, they debuted a technology that could optimize space exploration in the future. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), a probe with the mission of landing within just 100 meters (330 feet) of a specific target area.
This was a groundbreaking achievement, as mankind had never attempted such precision in landing a spacecraft off-Earth. “By creating the SLIM lander, humans will make a qualitative shift towards being able to land where we want and not just where it is easy to land, as had been the case before,” writes JAXA. “By achieving this, it will become possible to land on planets even more resource scarce than the Moon.”
Though a successful mission, it was not without its challenges. The spacecraft was turned off just three hours after its historic lunar touchdown on Saturday to save power. This took place after engineers noted that SLIM's solar cells were pointing west, away from the Sun, and could not generate electricity. With its power down to 12%, JAXA decided to disconnect the battery with the hope of restarting the lander when the solar cells could be charged as the Sun hit it in the right direction.
Luckily, SLIM released two rovers it was carrying shortly before touchdown, which are both communicating with Earth. The first is a lightweight rover weighing just 9 ounces that can adapt to various conditions it might encounter on the Moon’s surface by changing shapes on the go. The second rover can move using a hopping mechanism and is equipped with cameras and a few science payloads.
While the scientists didn't specify a timeframe for when the Sun might be in a better position, JAXA was able to download images and data about its descent to the lunar surface. “Although the attitude after landing did not go as planned, we are glad we [achieved] so much and are happy to have landed successfully,” the engineers at JAXA noted. “We're relieved and beginning to get excited after confirming a lot of data has been obtained,” Jaxa said.
As JAXA hopes to restart SLIM, it has already made history with their cutting edge technology. They now join China, India, the United States, and the former Soviet Union in the select group of countries that have soft-landed in the Moon.