Japan makes history with its first uncrewed moon landing

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) just confirmed its small car-sized Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) craft successfully arrived near the Shioli crater and has safely ejected its two small onboard robots. The historic achievement marks Japan’s first lunar landing, and makes it the fifth nation to ever reach the moon’s surface. According to JAXA officials, however, the SLIM’s “Moon Sniper” is not without complications.

“It seems the solar cell is not generating electricity at this point in time,” JAXA’s president Yamakawa Hiroshi said during a Friday morning news conference. As such, it is currently running on battery power that is only expected to last “several hours.”

“We are trying to maximize the scientific achievement,” Hiroshi continued, according to livestream translation from Japanese to English.

[Related: Peregrine lunar lander experiences ‘critical loss of propellant’ following successful launch.]

When asked if the mission is a success or failure, JAXA officials explained they consider soft landing itself successful, and that “most of the equipment is functional.” Engineers consider the solar cell problem a “separate issue,” and that SLIM is still sending and receiving data, including images, back to Earth.

SLIM launched to Earth orbit alongside an X-ray telescope on September 6, 2023. After a few weeks’ of diagnostic tests and observations from JAXA engineers, SLIM initiated an engine burn to leave Earth orbit on September 30, where it then begin its multi-day journey towards the moon. The craft maintained an orbit around the moon since October 4, and began landing procedures on January 19 at approximately 10:20am EST.

Friday’s achievement breaks an international streak of recent lunar mission failures. Less than 24 hours before SLIM’s soft landing, Astrobotic’s Peregrine spacecraft, originally destined for the moon, burned up upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Peregrine successfully launched on January 8 from Cape Canaveral, FL, but soon suffered a “critical loss of propellant” that ensured it would not reach its intended destination. In April 2023, the Japanese company ispace’s Hakuto-R achieved a lunar orbit, but crashed during its landing attempt.

Even if SLIM’s solar cell issues vastly shorten its lifespan, confirmation of its intended precision landing would mark a major moment for Japan’s space program. JAXA representatives estimate it could take roughly a month before knowing whether or not SLIM landed within 100-meters of its intended site. Officials, however, already expressed optimism regarding the achievement during Friday’s livestream.

“It used to be landing where we could, now we can land where we want,” said one JAXA representative.