Updated Jan 19, 2024 - Science

Japan completes its first-ever moon landing with "pinpoint" touchdown

Artist's illustration of Japan's SLIM lander attempting its lunar touchdown.

Artist's illustration of Japan's SLIM lander attempting its lunar touchdown on Jan. 19. Photo: ISAS/JAXA

Japan pulled off its first-ever moon landing after a robotic explorer touched down on the lunar surface on Friday morning ET, the country's space agency confirmed.

Why it matters: Japan is now the fifth country to have landed a spacecraft on the moon. The success was also a moment of redemption after a spacecraft developed by a private Japanese space company failed its attempted moon landing last year.

  • Japan's moon landing comes on the heels of the failed landing of the first lunar lander launched from the U.S. in decades. The vehicle, which was carrying human remains, suffered critical fuel loss hours into its flight earlier this month.

Background: The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) was launched into space atop a rocket in September.

  • It arrived in the moon's orbit on Christmas Day, and before Friday's touchdown, it had been orbiting the celestial body for weeks while preparing for landing.
  • One of the purposes of the mission was to test new navigation and landing systems to achieve "pinpoint" landings — technology that will be crucial for future lunar missions.
  • It will also help investigate the moon's origin and test technology crucial to exploring in low-gravity environments.

Of note: Japan's space agency said it made contact with the vehicle and confirmed its landing.

  • The spacecraft was projected to touch down in the moon's Sea of Nectar, a small basaltic plain formed from lava floods when the lunar surface was created.
  • Japan's space agency said a more detailed future data analysis will reveal whether SLIM successfully executed a high-precision landing within 100-meter accuracy.

Context: SLIM was launched along with the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, a collaboration telescope between JAXA and NASA that's set to explore celestial X-ray objects from Earth's orbit.

  • The space agency noted that SLIM's solar cells are not generating electricity and the operation is being powered by the spacecraft's batteries.
  • However, the agency noted that hope remains that the solar panels could still restart.

The big picture: Japan is a contributing member of NASA's Artemis moon exploration program — and joins the United States, China, Soviet Union and India in successfully reaching it.

  • The country agreed to develop a pressurized rover for future Artemis missions and provide life support components to the the Lunar Gateway, the first planned extraterrestrial space station.
  • NASA has agreed to take a Japanese astronaut to the Gateway, and the U.S. and Japan are finalizing plans to take the first Japanese astronaut to the lunar surface in a future mission.
  • Earlier this month, NASA delayed two Artemis missions, including its first crewed lunar landing in decades.

Go deeper: First U.S. moon lander in decades suffers "critical" fuel loss upon launch

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional statements from Japan's space agency.

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