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Japan’s lunar spacecraft arrives in orbit ahead of historic moon landing attempt

The “Moon Sniper” lander developed by Japan’s space agency successfully entered lunar orbit on Christmas Day. The milestone brings the nation a step closer to achieving its goal of landing a robotic explorer on the moon’s surface for the first time.

On its current path, the lander is completing one loop of the moon roughly every 6.4 hours. But over the next few weeks, the vehicle will slowly tighten its orbit, diving closer to the moon’s surface as it prepares for its historic touchdown attempt, slated for mid-January.

If successful, Japan would become only the fifth country to accomplish such a feat and only the third country to do so in the 21st century.

China and India are currently the only nations to safely land a vehicle on the moon in this century, marking the advent of a new race for the lunar surface characterized in part by efforts to identify and harness the moon’s natural resources for future long-term crewed missions.

Japan’s robotic explorer will attempt to demonstrate a “pinpoint” landing, aiming to touch down with extreme precision, and gather data about lunar rocks that could help scientists better understand the moon’s formation.

Heading in for landing

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, announced on December 25 that the lunar lander was placed into an elliptical orbit, sending it on a path that passes over the moon’s north and south poles at altitudes ranging from about 370 miles (600 kilometers) to 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers).

Over the next 3 ½ weeks, the spacecraft’s orbit will take it as close as 9 miles (15 kilometers) above the surface as it begins its final descent.

The Moon Sniper lander — also referred to as SLIM, or Smart Lander for Investigating Moon — will attempt its soft touchdown at 10:20 a.m. ET January 19, or 12:20 a.m. January 20 Japan Standard Time.

About SLIM, aka the Moon Sniper

The SLIM lightweight lander will target a landing zone that stretches about 328 feet (100 meters), rather than the typical kilometer range.

The precision led to the mission’s nickname, Moon Sniper.

If it reaches the lunar surface, SLIM is expected to explore a site near a small impact crater called Shioli — near the Apollo 11 landing site where NASA astronauts first touched down in 1969.

Race for the moon

The United States remains the only country that has landed humans on the moon, but NASA has not soft-landed astronauts or robotic vehicles on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Both a privately developed spacecraft from a Japan-based company, Ispace, and a lunar lander launched by Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, made a touchdown attempt in 2023 that ended in failure.

Each robotic craft crash-landed after experiencing navigation issues.

A lunar lander developed by India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation, successfully touched down in August — making it only the fourth country to do so after the United States, China and the former Soviet Union.

India’s spacecraft landed near the lunar south pole, where scientists believe there are valuable stores of water ice, making it the first nation to send a vehicle in close proximity to the region.

A year of lunar landing missions

After Japan’s Moon Sniper spacecraft makes its landing attempt, the United States aims to launch as many as three robotic vehicles to the moon’s surface in the coming year.

And NASA intends to send astronauts into orbit around the moon in late 2024.

If successful, the Artemis II mission would pave the way for another mission that could land humans on the moon later this decade.

The crewed NASA Artemis III mission could mark the first time that astronauts have returned to the lunar surface since the 1970s.

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