Aerospace & Defence

Why did iSpace’s Hakuto-R Mission 1 moon lander fail?

2nd May 2023
Harry Fowle

Japanese space startup, iSpace, attempted to land a privately-funded spacecraft on the moon, the Hakuto-R Mission 1, in late April 2023, only for the lander to fail in the final stages – what was the purpose of the mission and why did the lander fail?

The Hakuto-R Mission 1 was launched back on 11th December 2022 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, successfully entering lunar orbit around three months later on 21st March 2023. Aboard the lander was the Emirates Lunar Mission rover, made in partnership with the Mohammed bin Rashard Space Centre (MBRSC), Tomy and JAXA’s SORA-Q transformable lunar robot, as well as novelty payload items such as a music disc by Japanese rock band Sakanaction.

The lander measured in at 2.3m tall and 2.6m wide, weighing around 1,000kg with full payload and fuel onboard. The landing gear included four landing legs and a main thruster to slow the lander on approach to the lunar surface. It was determined that the mission’s landing would take place in the Atlas crater in the Mare Frigoris region of the moon.

As the lander entered an increasingly elliptical orbit of the moon on its approach to the lunar surface, things were looking promising, the craft sending snapshots back of its approach and operating smoothly. However, as the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander came into its final descent, reaching a mere 89m from the lunar surface, communications were completely lost between control and the lander, it being believed that the lander made an unscheduled hard impact with the lunar surface.

What went wrong?

Following the communications loss, a spokesperson for iSpace said: “Engineers monitored the estimated remaining propellant reached at the lower threshold and shortly afterwards the descent speed rapidly increased. After that, the communication loss happened. 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.”

Analysis of the situation before the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander lost communications has determined that the failure of the landing was due to a loss of propellant in the final stage of landing which led to the rapid descent and hard impact on the lunar surface. Alongside this issue, there was also a critical fault with the software on the lander, which failed to correctly measure the current altitude of the lander from the lunar surface.

Success in failure!

Despite the failure of the landing iSpace CEO Takeshi Hakamada was optimistic about the overall outcome, saying the company had “fully accomplished the significance of this mission, having acquired a great deal of data and experience by being able to execute the landing phase.”

The mission getting as far as it did is also a promising signifier for commercial involvement in space exploration, with the mission being the first commercial attempt to land on the moon as well as now holding the record for the furthest distance a privately-funded spacecraft has travelled. Future missions and their success could mean potential growth in the commercial space sector.

iSpace isn’t planning to halt its plans following the crash of its first test mission, with a series of ‘even more ambitious’ commercial landers planned to launch over the next few years.

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