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Economy & Tech

EDITORIAL | After SLIM Mission, Keep at Perfecting Lunar Landing Technology

SLIM's technology expands the possibilities for lunar exploration by unmanned vehicles. It opens the way for Japan to become a key player in space development.

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Artist's rendering of SLIM on the moon's surface. (Provided by JAXA)

The small demonstration vehicle SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon), belonging to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), successfully landed on the moon in the early hours of January 20. Japan thus became the fifth nation to successfully soft land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, following the former Soviet Union, the United States, China, and India. This marked a major step forward in increasing Japan's profile in the global ranks of countries involved in space exploration.

'Barely Passed'

Unfortunately, however, the lander's solar power cells have failed to generate electricity following touchdown. This will sharply curtail the amount of its projected activity time on the lunar surface. 

Hitoshi Kuninaka, director of JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, gave the mission a score of "60 points out of 100," saying it "barely passed the test."

The expectation was that, with a successful lunar landing, SLIM would be able to demonstrate high-precision landing technology that would attract attention from the US, China, and India.

Hopefully, Japan will be able to overcome the issues encountered in the less-than-perfect landing that caused JAXA officials to deduct so many points in their evaluation. By doing so, it can definitively demonstrate to the world the true extent of Japan's technological prowess.

SLIM is designed to showcase two innovative technologies. One was to achieve a "pinpoint landing" within 100 meters of the target site. Judging from flight data and other available information, it almost certainly was successful in that respect.

The second technology was the planned "two-stage landing,'' in which SLIM was supposed to land on a tilted angle. This apparently went awry and the spacecraft ended up in an unintended position. As a result, the solar cells aboard the car-sized, 200-kilogram (440-pound) spacecraft are not generating electricity. 

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It will take around a month to determine just how "pinpoint" the landing was. Hopefully, JAXA scientists will be able to determine why the landing was not totally satisfactory. Then, they may be able to pull off a perfect landing on their next attempt.

Artist's rendering of exploration lander SLIM's lunar landing. (Provided by JAXA)

Precision Landing Technology

On the positive side, SLIM touched down within 100 meters of its intended landing site. Previous lunar landings had only achieved a range of a few kilometers. Additionally, it was the first to land "where it wanted," rather than having to seek out a flat area.

Furthermore, the technology that SLIM sought to demonstrate expands the possibilities for lunar exploration by unmanned vehicles. It could also prove essential in Mars exploration and for improving the safety of manned spacecraft. 

Developing high-precision landing technology will be extremely important if Japan is to become an indispensable country in space development based on international cooperation.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, gymnast Mitsuo Tsukahara astounded the world with his "moon somersault" technique. It was three years after Apollo 11 landed a man on the moon for the first time.

Today, more than half a century later, techniques derived from Tsukahara's "moon somersault" are still performed by both men and women in various gymnastic events. 

We would also like to see Japan take the lead in developing SLIM's landing technology to support space exploration over the long term.

That is one more reason for Japan's space scientists to create an opportunity to try again as soon as possible. Ideally, that will set the stage for us to amaze the world with a flawless lunar landing. 

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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