- By George Wright & Kathryn Armstrong in London
- BBC News
A Japanese company hoping to make a rare private moon landing says its lunar lander may have crashed into the surface.
Contact with Hakuto-R was lost minutes before touchdown at around 16:40 GMT on Tuesday.
Engineers are investigating what happened.
Tokyo-based ISpace hoped the lander would launch an exploratory rover, as well as a tennis ball-sized robot developed by a toymaker.
The craft was launched by a SpaceX rocket in December and took five months to reach its destination.
“We have not confirmed contact with the lander,” iSpace CEO Takeshi Hakamada said 25 minutes after the planned landing.
“We have to assume that we are not able to complete the landing on the lunar surface,” he added.
Mr Hakamada later said that while the mission was not expected to be completed, the company had “completely fulfilled the mission’s significance, gaining a wealth of data and experience from the implementation of the landing phase”.
The M1 lander was set to touch down after coming within 295 feet (89 m) of the lunar surface, a live animation showed.
The lander is 2 m tall and weighs 340 kg, relatively small and compact by lunar spacecraft standards. That resulted in a one-hour landing maneuver from an altitude of about 100 km above its orbit, where it was moving at a speed of 6,000 km per hour.
After reaching a landing site in the northern hemisphere of the Moon, Hakuto-R will use two payloads to study the lunar soil, its geography and atmosphere. One of them was made by TOMY, the toy company that made Transformers.
Only the United States, Russia, and China have managed to put a robot on the surface of the moon through government-sponsored programs.
In 2019, Israel’s Beresheet mission became the first attempt by a private company to land on the moon. Its spacecraft managed to orbit the moon, but was lost during the landing attempt.
The primary objective of the Japanese mission was to assess the feasibility of a commercial launch to the lunar surface. This is iSpace’s first test in what they hope will be a series of commercial landings over the next few years, each more ambitious than the last.
The company’s vision is to provide commercial services for human presence on the lunar surface, such as shipping equipment for mining and producing rocket fuel.
A successful landing would have represented a “step change” in commercial involvement in space exploration, according to Dr. Adam Baker, director of an aerospace consulting firm not involved in the rocket engineering project.
“If it’s affordable and repeatable, it opens the door for anyone willing to pay the price to land something on the surface of the moon,” he told the BBC.