Project manager Sakai Shinichiro admitted in a press conference on Thursday that he “almost fell down” when he saw the image.
“Something we designed travelled all the way to the moon and took that snapshot,” he said.
The country’s space agency now believes one of Slim’s main engines lost thrust when it was 50 metres above the surface, setting in course a chain of events that meant its solar panels failed to function.
However, the lander did achieve its primary mission of a precise landing, with Slim coming down 55 metres east of its original target. Previous international missions have traditionally aimed for a landing zone of several square kilometres.
The new information was revealed less than a week after Slim’s success meant Japan became only the fifth nation to land on the moon.
The incredible photo of the partially bodged landing was taken by a baseball-sized robot called Sora-Q which was successfully ejected moments before the touchdown.
Not only did Sora-Q move on the surface to take the photo but a second rover, Lev-1, managed to hop.
“The accomplishment of Lev-1’s leaping movements on the lunar surface, inter-robot communication between Lev-1 and Sora-Q, and fully autonomous operations represent groundbreaking achievement,” said Japan’s space agency, JAXA.
“It would be regarded as a valuable technology demonstration for future lunar explorations, and the acquired knowledge and experience will be applied in upcoming missions.”
JAXA added in a statement that an “abnormality in the main engine” affected the “landing attitude” of the spacecraft.
Despite hitting its nose, Slim’s final resting place was just 55 metres from its target, far better than its aim of getting within 100 metres of it.
The positioning, though, meant its solar generators pointed away from the sun, causing project leaders to power down its battery reserves when it reached 12 per cent, effectively putting it into hibernation.
Days before the press conference, JAXA told journalists it believed it could potentially reactivate Slim later when sunlight eventually pours in from the west – the direction its solar cells are now facing.
Moon missions usually attempt to land early in the lunar day, when the sun rises from the east, giving two weeks of illumination before it sets in the west for two subsequent weeks of darkness.
Sunset over the Shioli crater, where Slim is situated, is expected early on 31 January. If successful, Slim will then attempt extra objectives, including using its camera to assess the composition of the crater.
The team also revealed that, during its limited time alive, Slim was able to obtain “a lot of data”, including technical information and images during the landing descent.
“The big objective of Slim is to prove the high-accuracy landing – to land where we want on the lunar surface, rather than landing where we can,” said Yamakawa Hiroshi, chief executive of JAXA, before the touchdown.
The Slim mission – or Smart Lander for Investigating Moon – aimed to land on a sloped rim inside the 300-metre-wide Shioli crater. It’s been nicknamed the “Moon Sniper” for its goal of landing so close to its target point.
It follows two earlier attempts by Japan to land spacecraft in the past two years: the Omotenashi lander scrapped an attempted landing in 2022, while the Hakuto-R Mission 1 crashed last April.
Japan now joins the US, China, the Soviet Union, and India in pulling off the feat.
Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.
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