Science & Nature

‘Moon Sniper’ Mission: Japan’s joy in becoming the 5th nation to touch the moon,’ dampened by solar panel discrepancy.

Japanese scientists are dismayed as a wrong inclination angle of the spacecraft's solar panels has resulted in an acute "power crisis" inside its rover.

Tokyo, Japan: On January 19th, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) got their country’s name registered on the golden pages of history by becoming the fifth country in the world to secure a successful landing on the surface of Earth’s natural satellite. Today, the name of Japan and its “Moon Sniper” has been enlisted in the elite club of countries to have landed on the moon along with the United States of America, Russia, China, and India. However, discrepancies with the solar panels installed in its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) turned out to be a damp squib in Japan’s era of scientific glory.

What is the problem with Moon Sniper’s rover?

As JAXA confirmed after the Moon Sniper’s successful precision landing near an equatorial crater on the Lunar surface, a moment of tension followed when there was trouble communicating with the device after its ‘soft touchdown.’ Soon, engineers revealed that the solar panels mounted on its lander had not been functioning, depriving the machine of the energy required to execute its mission. 

The lander’s machines have been functioning on batteries as there is no inflow of fresh energy from its solar panels. Hitoshi Kuninaka, the head of JAXA’s research centre, revealed, “SLIM is now operating only on its battery, and we are prioritising the transfer of its data onto Earth.”

The scientists believe since the solar panels mounted atop the lander are inclined at the wrong angle, despite the abundance of sunlight, the machine is incapable of generating electricity and storing it on batteries. To ensure the longevity of the spacecraft, the scientists decided to switch off the secondary machines to preserve energy. They are optimistic that a shift in the sunlight’s angle shall optimally hit the panels, enabling the machine to restore its function.

Objective of the ‘Moon Sniper’ program:

As suggested by its name, “Moon Sniper,” this program is aimed at landing precisely within 100 metres of its target. Generally, spacecraft land within a few kilometres from its target, but JAXA aims to be more exact with its technology. The Japanese scientists believe that their technology can emerge as a powerful tool for future explorations — where rovers could reach hilly parts of the moon, rich in oxygen and water. “These life-sustaining elements also have an important use as a fuel source for rockets,” the scientists opined.

Was the ‘Moon Sniper’ mission a failure?

The “Moon Sniper” mission has been estimated to cost around USD 120 million. For reference, India’s prestigious Chandrayaan-3 mission was constructed at USD 75 million. Credit must be given where it is due — JAXA was successful in being ‘super precise’ in its landing, which was its primary objective. 

The engineers successfully monitored and executed the challenging part of ensuring its soft landing, but the solar panel fiasco (that should have ideally worked) was merely a misfortune. The Japanese scientists are busy improvising to maintain the optimal utilisation of the spacecraft’s remaining energy and will be hoping for a miracle. However, once the region is deprived of sunlight and the temperature plummets, the machine shall go eternally dormant with its inbuilt heaters not functioning — terminating the mission.

Since, every cloud has a silver lining, this attempt by the Japanese scientists was not exactly a “failure” but a huge step in the right direction with significant lessons for the scientific community. Let us not forget how the failure of the Chandrayaan-2 mission paved the way for ISRO’s glory with Chandrayaan-3

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