Moon landing appears to have failed — but sets a milestone

A Japanese attempt to make lunar history appears to have failed. Engineers say the privately funded moon lander likely made what's known as a "hard landing," and communication with it has been lost.

The craft was supposed to touch down near a crater in the moon's northern hemisphere at around 1:40 a.m. Wednesday April 26, Japan time.

The Tokyo-based company, ispace, says it has not been able to communicate with the craft since its scheduled landing time.

"Of course, it may not have been able to land, but analysis is ongoing. Engineers will study what happened based on the data." says Hakamada Takeshi, a founder and CEO of ispace. He also says, "We maintained communication until just before the lander came down. I think that's a very big achievement."

Hakamada says the outcome will form a foundation for technological advances.

Lunar landings are always a challenge

The former Soviet Union and the United States carried out successful unmanned lunar landings in 1966 as national projects. China did so in 2013.

One hurdle is the moon's gravity, which is weaker than Earth's, but far stronger than an asteroid's.

Once spacecraft or other objects start descending, they are pulled toward the moon's surface, and it is difficult to re-ascend. Landings are therefore make-or-break.

Japanese former astronaut Yamazaki Naoko praised the mission, saying "I was proud of ispace for the big accomplishment to that point."

Yamazaki says, "Moon landings are very challenging, and each space program has risks." She said data obtained from the ispace attempt would help in mitigating future risks, and "beneficial for following missions, to make them more reliable."

Yamazaki is a former astronaut with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

Anticipating future success

Japan's ispace is one of many companies from different countries trying to get to the moon. Yamazaki says she expects the result this time could lead to new breakthroughs in lunar research.

She says, "Human space technologies are getting mature, like the International Space Station. So now we are expanding our frontier to this lunar surface." She says observations show the moon has plenty of resources, such as water and the surface covering, or regolith, which contains oxygen and some minerals.

She notes that in 2020, NASA selected four companies from which to purchase lunar resources, and ispace and ispace Europe are two of those firms. "Actually, ispace is the first Japanese company which was covered under the Space Resources Act by the Japanese government," she says. "So, to acquire resources and sell to the government is a benefit for the companies."