Japan’s ispace said its attempt to make the first private moon landing had failed after losing contact with its Hakuto-R Mission 1 (M1) lander when it unexpectedly accelerated and probably crashed on the lunar surface.
The startup said it was possible that as the lander approached the moon, its altitude measurement system had miscalculated the distance to the surface.
“It apparently went into a freefall towards the surface as it was running out of fuel to fire up its thrusters,” Ryo Ujiie, the chief technology officer, told a news conference on Wednesday.
It was the second setback for commercial space development in a week after SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded spectacularly minutes after launch.
A private firm has yet to succeed with a lunar landing. Only the US, the former Soviet Union and China have soft-landed spacecraft on the moon, with attempts in recent years by India and a private Israeli company also ending in failure.
Ispace, which delivers payloads such as rovers to the moon and sells related data, listed on the Tokyo stock exchange only two weeks ago and a frenzy of excitement around its prospects had driven up its shares seven-fold since then.
But disappointment led to a glut of sell orders on Wednesday. After being untraded all day, the stock finished down 20% in a forced closing price decided by the bourse that reflects the balance of buy and sell orders.
Japan’s top government spokesperson, Hirokazu Matsuno, said while it was sad that the mission did not succeed, the country wanted ispace to “keep trying” as its efforts were significant to the development of a domestic space industry.
Japan, which has set itself a goal of sending astronauts to the moon by the late 2020s, has had some recent setbacks. The national space agency last month had to destroy its new medium-lift H3 rocket upon reaching space after its second-stage engine failed to ignite. Its solid-fuel Epsilon rocket also failed after launch in October.
Four months after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a SpaceX rocket, the M1 lander appeared set to autonomously touch down at about 1.40am Japan time (4.40pm BST Tuesday), with an animation based on live telemetry data showing it coming as close as 90 metres (295 ft) from the lunar surface.
By the expected touchdown time, mission control had lost contact with the lander and engineers appeared anxious over the livestream as they awaited signal confirmation of its fate which never came.
The lander completed eight out of 10 mission objectives in space that will provide valuable data for the next landing attempt in 2024, ispace’s chief executive, Takeshi Hakamada, said.
Approximately an hour before planned touchdown, the 2.3-metre-tall M1 began its landing phase, gradually tightening its orbit around the moon from 62 miles (100 km) above the surface to about 15 miles, travelling at nearly 3,700 mph.
At such velocity, slowing the lander to the correct speed against the moon’s gravitational pull is like squeezing the brakes of a bicycle right at the edge of a ski-jumping slope, Ujiie has said.
The craft was aiming for a landing site at the edge of Mare Frigoris in the moon’s northern hemisphere where it would have deployed a two-wheeled, baseball-sized rover developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Tomy and Sony. It also planned to deploy a four-wheeled rover called Rashid from the United Arab Emirates.
The lander was carrying an experimental solid-state battery made by Niterra among other devices to gauge their performance on the moon.