NASA caught private moon lander crash on camera

    NASA couldn’t help but do a little rubbernecking of the recent crash site where a private Japanese company recently attempted to land on the moon.

    The Hakuto-R mission ended abruptly on April 25, 2023, shortly after ispace lost contact with its spacecraft as it descended toward the lunar surface. An investigation indicated that onboard software underestimated the lander’s altitude. It eventually ran out of fuel during its descent and free-fell to the surface. Fuel is necessary for landing on the moon because a spacecraft must fire its thrusters to slow down before reaching the ground.

    Flying overhead, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured 10 images of the proposed landing site near the Atlas Crater that show four prominent pieces of debris and several small changes to the surface. Those features could be a small crater or parts of the lander that have scattered. The U.S. space agency intends to snap more pictures over the coming months to get a better look(opens in a new tab) with different lighting conditions and angles.

    (To see a before-and-after of the landing site, check out the tweet below.)


    Daring private moon lander ran out of fuel before crash

    NASA has used the orbiter to take pictures of other moon crashes(opens in a new tab) in the past, and it’s not to bask in others’ failures. The purpose is to study the impacts for insight into the moon dust. When spacecraft land on the moon, the spray of dust and soil damages anything that can be sandblasted. Anticipating a future filled with moon landings, scientists want to better understand the erosion and impacts they cause and learn how to mitigate them.

    Ispace invited the world to watch alongside its Tokyo-based mission control through a livestream of the nail-biting space event. Company officials said they’re proud of what the mission achieved and will use the flight data during the landing phase to help them prepare for their next two lunar missions.

    Mission controllers and ispace company executives appear disappointed as they lose communication with the Hakuto-R mission’s moon lander.
    Credit: ispace / YouTube screenshot

    One month since the crash, ispace shared its final results from the mission with reporters.

    A deeper probe into the cause of the crash revealed that onboard software underestimated the spacecraft’s altitude. The lander thought it had reached the ground with about three miles still to go. The spacecraft eventually ran out of fuel, then proceeded to free fall the rest of the way to the lunar surface. Company officials said they’re now redesigning the software. In a statement, CEO Takeshi Hakamada said ispace has “a very clear picture of how to improve.”

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    Though 60 years have passed since the first uncrewed moon landings, it remains daunting, with less than half of missions succeeding. Unlike on Earth, the moon’s atmosphere is very thin, providing virtually no drag to slow a spacecraft down as it approaches the ground. Moreover, there is no GPS system on the moon to help guide a craft to its landing spot.

    Hakuto-R was the first of many other commercial missions expected to attempt this feat soon, many of which are an outgrowth of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program(opens in a new tab). The program was established in 2018 to recruit the private sector to help deliver cargo to the moon.

    NASA also plans to use commercial contractors to deliver people to the moon. Last week the space agency announced its second moon lander contract, this one a $3.4 billion agreement with Blue Origin, for the Artemis V astronauts. That landing is currently slated for 2029. SpaceX holds the $4 billion contract to develop a Starship lander for the Artemis III and IV missions, coming as early as 2025 and 2028, respectively.

    While NASA is an experienced moon-landing agency, ispace is new to space exploration, and took a risk by livestreaming its maiden attempt. Even in failure, they wanted to show the moon economy is growing.

    “We tried to be transparent to the world. That will, we believe, (help us) gain more trust in our business and technology,” said Hakamada in an interview with Mashable in April. “Many people will be given the impression that this is real, and this will pave the way for the greater development of the cislunar ecosystem.”

    An earlier version of this story published on May 25, 2023. It has been updated with the final results from ispace’s crash analysis.

    Read the full article here

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