A Japanese space startup said its lander likely crashed on the Moon's surface following a touchdown attempt on Wednesday, dashing its hopes of becoming the world's first private company to successfully land spacecraft on the lunar surface.
Tokyo-based Ispace Inc. said it lost contact with the spacecraft, launched aboard a rocket developed by U.S. firm SpaceX in December, shortly before it attempted to land on the Moon in the early hours of Wednesday.
With data suggesting the remaining fuel in the spacecraft was running out and that its descent speed rapidly increased shortly afterward, "there is a high probability that the lander eventually made a hard landing on the Moon's surface," it said in a statement.
The lander was unable to calculate the correct altitude, perceiving it as zero while still above the surface. It is believed to have run out of fuel when it failed to utilize its engine at the right time and gone into a freefall, according to the startup's Chief Technology Officer Ryo Ujiie.
The landing, if it had been successful, would also have marked Japan's first-ever lunar landing. The country's space agency failed to put the ultra-small space probe Omotenashi on the Moon last year.
Although a successful lunar landing was not achieved this time, "We believe that we have fully accomplished the significance of this mission, having acquired a great deal of data and experience by being able to execute the landing phase," Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of Ispace, said in the statement.
Hakamada told a press conference later in the day that the mission was a "big step forward" for its future space exploration. The company is planning on sending a second lander carrying its own rover and customer payloads to the Moon in 2024.
"It's difficult to recreate (the Moon's low gravitational pull) on Earth, and it's therefore tricky to prepare" for a lunar landing beforehand, said Yasunori Matogawa, emeritus professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
"Other conditions that make landing on the Moon tricky include the presence or lack of an atmosphere, as well as temperature fluctuations," he added.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the government will continue to support space programs by startups, posting on Twitter, "We will continue to support Japanese startups' never-ending challenge in space."
The company launched the lander as part of the first stage of its Hakuto-R exploration program, hoping to use the technology for lunar surface data collection and cargo transportation services to the Moon.
The spacecraft was carrying seven payloads, including a rover from the United Arab Emirates and a small transformable robot chiefly developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and toy company Tomy Co.
An Ispace official told the press conference it is difficult at the moment to confirm the status of the payloads.
It decelerated in steps from a velocity of some 6,000 km per hour, approaching the Atlas crater in the northeastern quadrant of the Moon, according to the company.
The lander took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in December. In order to carry less fuel, it took a longer, energy-efficient route to reach the Moon, and at one point in January was almost 1.4 million km away from Earth.
Japanese startup Dymon Co. has also expressed its intention to send its own small rover Yaoki to the Moon by the second half of the year aboard an American lunar lander. If successful, it will likely become the first Japanese private company to reach the lunar surface.