ispace loses contact with lunar lander seconds before touchdown

Japanese company ispace lost communication with its Hakuto-R lander just moments before it was supposed to touch down on the lunar surface.

“At this moment, we have not been able to confirm successful landing on the lunar surface,” ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada said on the company’s livestream. “Currently, we have not confirmed the communication from the lander. […] We have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface. ”

He said that ispace engineers will continue to assess the situation and provide an update once that investigation is complete.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Hakamada said that while it is possible that the lander is safe and intact on the surface, there is no data to support that yet and it’s unclear whether imagery from a lunar orbiter could shed light on the situation either.

“The team said to me that they had communication until the very end of the landing. They are investigating very hard what really happened at the time of the touchdown,” Hakamada said. “Basically they are investigating our telemetry data; regarding image and video data, our camera on board was taking images, but our communication during landing was the low gain antenna, so we can’t expect the regular communications rates.”

He added that regardless of the outcome, the mission has provided incredibly valuable data that will be used to inform the next lunar mission ispace undertakes — the kind of fast turnaround only possible at a private space company.

The lander had a nominal five-month journey to the moon, after launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last December. The landing sequence appeared to be going well, with the lander moving at around 50 kilometers per hour, until the final landing sequence commenced.

The news is no doubt a major disappointment for Tokyo-based ispace, which has been working on lunar landing technology since 2010. The company, which originated as a team competing for Google’s Lunar X Prize, was hoping to be the first fully private firm to send a commercial lander to the moon. Thus far, only three nations — the United States, the USSR, and China — have landed a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

“We will keep going,” Hakamada said at the end of the livestream. “Never quit [our] lunar quest.”