A Japanese company has lost contact with a small robotic spacecraft it was sending to the moon. Analysis of data from the vehicle suggests it ran out of propellant during its final approach and instead of landing softly crashed into the lunar surface.
After firing its main engine, the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander built by Ispace of Japan dropped out of lunar orbit. About an hour later, at 12:40 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, the lander, about 7.5 feet tall, was expected to land in Atlas Crater, a 54-mile-wide feature in the northeast quadrant of the near side of the moon.
But after the time of touchdown, no signal was received from the spacecraft. On a live video streamed by the company, a pall of silence enveloped the control room in Tokyo where Ispace engineers, mostly young and from around the world, looked with concerned expressions at their screens.
In a statement released on Wednesday morning in Japan, the company reported that Ispace engineers observed that the estimated remaining propellant was “at the lower threshold and shortly afterward the descent speed rapidly increased.”
In other words, the spacecraft ran out of fuel and fell.
Communications with the spacecraft were then lost. “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 said.
An investigation will now have to determine why the spacecraft apparently misjudged its altitude. The analysis suggests that it was still high up when it should have been on the ground.
In an interview, Takeshi Hakamada, the chief executive of Ispace, said he was “very, very proud” of the result nonetheless. “I’m not disappointed,” he said.
With the data obtained from the spacecraft, the company will be able to apply “lessons learned” to its next two missions, Mr. Hakamada said.
The Hakuto-R spacecraft launched in December and took a circuitous but energy-efficient path to the moon, entering lunar orbit in March. For the past month, engineers have been checking out the lander’s systems before proceeding with the landing attempt.
The Ispace lander could have been the first step toward a new paradigm of space exploration, with governments, research institutions and companies sending scientific experiments and other cargo to the moon.
The beginning of that lunar transport transition will now have to wait for other companies later this year. Two commercial landers, built by American companies and financed by NASA, are scheduled to be launched to the moon in the coming months.
NASA established its Commercial Lunar Payload Service Program, or CLPS, in 2018, because buying rides on private spacecraft for instruments and equipment to the moon promises to be cheaper than building its own vehicles. In addition, NASA hopes to spur a new commercial industry around the moon, and competition between lunar companies would likely further push down the costs. The program was modeled in part on a similar effort that has successfully provided transport to and from the International Space Station.
So far, however, NASA has little to show for its efforts. The first two missions later this year, by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines of Houston, are years behind schedule, and some of the companies that NASA had selected to bid for CLPS missions have already gone out of business.
Ispace is planning a second mission using a lander of almost the same design next year. In 2026, a larger Ispace lander is to carry NASA payloads to the far side of the moon as part of a CLPS mission led by Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass.
Two nations — Japan and the United Arab Emirates — lost payloads aboard the lander. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, wanted to test a two-wheeled transformable lunar robot, and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai sent a small rover that was to explore the landing site. Each would have been the first robotic explorer for that country on the lunar surface.
Other payloads included a test module for a solid-state battery from NGK Spark Plug Company, an artificial intelligence flight computer and 360-degree cameras from Canadensys Aerospace.
During their space race more than 50 years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union both successfully sent robotic spacecraft to the surface of the moon. More recently, China has landed intact spacecraft three times on the moon.
However, other attempts have failed.
Beresheet, an effort by SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, crashed in April 2019 when a command sent to the spacecraft inadvertently turned off the main engine, causing the spacecraft to plummet to its destruction.
Eight months later, India’s Vikram lander shifted off course about a mile above the surface during its landing attempt, then went quiet.
If the Ispace lander did crash, it might take some time to understand from the telemetry sent back from the spacecraft to figure out what happened. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was eventually able to spot the crash sites of Beresheet and Vikram, and may be able to find M1’s resting place in the Atlas Crater, too.
Ispace is not the only private space company to encounter difficulties in the first few months of 2023. New rocket models built by SpaceX, ABL Space Systems, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Relativity failed during their first ever flights, although some got farther into space than others. Virgin Orbit’s most recent rocket launch failed and the company later declared bankruptcy, although it continues to work toward another launch.
At the same time, launch frequency is higher than ever, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket having dozens of successful liftoffs so far in 2023. An Arianespace rocket also sent a European Space Agency probe on a mission to Jupiter.