Japanese Company’s Moon Lander Is Presumed Lost After Going Silent

Animation from ispace coverage of Hakuto-R moon probe's descent
An animation from ispace's webcast shows the Hakuto-R lander descending as the mission team watches. Credit: ispace via YouTube

A lunar lander built and operated by ispace, a Japanese startup, descended to the surface of the moon today after a months-long journey — but went out of contact and was presumed lost.

“We have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada said during a webcast of the Hakuto-R mission’s final stages.

Ground controllers at the Hakuto-R Mission Control Center in Tokyo continued trying to re-establish communications nevertheless, and Hakamada said his company would try again.

“We are very proud of the fact that we have achieved many things during this Mission 1,” he said. “We will keep going. Never quit the lunar quest.”

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Hakuto-R Spacecraft Just Captured its Own Stunning Version of ‘Earthrise’

The Hakuto-r lunar lander took this 'Earthrise"-like image from its current location in lunar orbit. Credit: ispace.

The Hakuto-R lunar lander, currently in orbit around the Moon, just captured a beautiful “Earthrise”-like image, and one with an interesting side note. The Mission 1 lander, from the Tokyo-based commercial company ispace, took the image during the time of the April 20 solar eclipse, where totality was visible in Australia; and so the photo includes a perfect view of the shadow of the Moon passing above the Land Down Under.

The spacecraft was approximately 100 km (60 miles) above the lunar surface when it took the photo.

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A Tadpole-Shaped Cloud of Gas is Whirling Around a Black Hole

Artist’s Impression of the “Tadpole” Molecular Cloud and the black hole at the gravitational center of its orbit. Credit: Keio University

In the 1930s, astrophysicists theorized that at the end of their life cycle, particularly massive stars would collapse, leaving behind remnants of infinite mass and density. As a proposed resolution to Einstein’s field equations (for his Theory of General Relativity), these objects came to be known as “black holes” because nothing (even light) could escape them. By the 1960s, astronomers began to infer the existence of these objects based on the observable effects they have on neighboring objects and their surrounding environment.

Despite improvements in instruments and interferometry (which led to the first images of M87 and Sagittarius A*), the study of black holes still relies on indirect methods. In a recent study, a team of Japanese researchers identified an unusual cloud of gas that appears to have been elongated by a massive, compact object that it orbits. Since there are no massive stars in its vicinity, they theorize that the cloud (nicknamed the “Tadpole” because of its shape) orbits a black hole roughly 27,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius.

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Want to Soar to the Stratosphere? Japan Joins the Balloon Tourism Race

T-10 Earther capsule for Iwaya Giken's Open Universe balloon venture
A Japanese venture aims to send balloon tourists into the stratosphere in a pressurized capsule. (Credit: Iwaya Giken)

A Japanese company has put out the call for passengers who’d be willing to pay more than $175,000 for an hours-long ride in a balloon-borne capsule that will rise as high as 15 miles (25 kilometers).

Technically, that’s nowhere near the boundary of outer space, but it’s high enough to get an astronaut’s-eye view of the curving Earth beneath a black sky.

“It’s safe, economical and gentle for people,” the CEO of a startup called Iwaya Giken, Keisuke Iwaya, told reporters in Tokyo. “The idea is to make space tourism for everyone.”

Other companies are planning similar stratospheric tourist ventures. But if Iwaya’s venture sticks to its announced timeline and begins flying customers around the end of this year, it would be the first to get to market.

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Japan’s Hayabusa 2 Probe Drops Off Bits of an Asteroid and Heads for Its Next Target

Hayabusa 2 artwork
An artist's conception shows Hayabusa 2's sample return capsule making its atmospheric re-entry as its mothership flies above. (JAXA Illustration)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth on December 5th and dropped off a capsule containing bits of an asteroid, finishing a six-year round trip.

But the mission is far from over: While Hayabusa 2’s parachute-equipped sample capsule descended to the Australian Outback, its mothership set a new course for an encounter with yet another asteroid in 2031.

Hayabusa 2’s prime objective was to deliver bits of Ryugu, an asteroid that’s currently 11.6 million kilometers from Earth. Mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, cheered and laughed when word came that the capsule had survived atmospheric re-entry.

Imagery captured by tracking cameras — and from the International Space Station — showed the capsule streaking like a fireball across the sky as it decelerated from an initial speed of 43,000 kilometers per hour.

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Japan Suspends its Funding for the 30-Meter Telescope

An artist's illustration of the Thirty Meter Telescope at its preferred location at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Image Courtesy TMT International Observatory

Japan has suspended its funding contribution to the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii. An international consortium is behind the TMT, which was proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is one of the most desirable observing locations on Earth. It’s already host to several observatories, including the Subaru Telescope and the Keck Observatory. The $1.4 billion TMT would be the most powerful telescope there.

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So Cool! Japanese Space Research Center will be Suspended Over a Moonlike Crater

The robotics research center will be suspended 18 meters above the man-made "crater", which is actually an old mine site. Image: Clouds Architecture Office.
The robotics research center will be suspended 18 meters above the man-made "crater", which is actually an old mine site. Image: Clouds Architecture Office.

The architectural design behind Japan’s new space research center is mind-boggling. The futuristic building will incorporate elements of spacecraft design, which emphasize light weight and high functionality. The whole thing will be suspended over a man-made, Moon-like crater.

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Japan Becomes A Military Space Player With Latest Launch

JAXA's H-IIA Launch Vehicle taking off from the Tanegashima Space Center. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/NARITA Masahiro

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has accomplished some impressive things over the years. Between 2003 (when it was formed) and 2016, the agency has launched multiple satellites – ranging from x-ray and infrared astronomy to lunar and Venus atmosphere exploration probes – and overseen Japan’s participation in the International Space Station.

But in what is an historic mission – and a potentially controversial one – JAXA recently launched the first of three X-band defense communication satellites into orbit. By giving the Japanese Self-Defense Forces the ability to relay communications and commands to its armed forces, this satellite (known as DSN 2) represents an expansion of Japan’s military capability.

The launch took place on January 24th at 4:44 pm Japan Standard Time (JST) – or 0744 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) – with the launch of a H-IIA rocket from Tanegashima Space Center. This was the thirty-second successful flight of the launch vehicle, and the mission was completed with the deployment of the satellite in Low-Earth Orbit – 35,000 km; 22,000 mi above the surface of the Earth.

Artist’s concept of a Japanese X-band military communications satellite. Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

Shortly after the completion of the mission, JAXA issued a press release stating the following:

“At 4:44 p.m., (Japan Standard Time, JST) January 24, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. and JAXA launched the H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 32 with X-band defense communication satellite-2* on board. The launch and the separation of the satellite proceeded according to schedule. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. and JAXA express appreciation for the support in behalf of the successful launch. At the time of the launch the weather was fine, at 9 degrees Celsius, and the wind speed was 7.1 meters/second from the NW.”

This launch is part of a $1.1 billion program by the Japanese Defense Ministry to develop X-band satellite communications for the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). With the overall goal of deploying three x-band relay satellites into geostationary orbit, its intended purpose is to reduce the reliance of Japan’s military (and those of its allies) on commercial and international communications providers.

While this may seem like a sound strategy, it is a potential source of controversy in that it may skirt the edge of what is constitutionally permitted in Japan. In short, deploying military satellites is something that may be in violation of Japan’s post-war agreements, which the nation committed to as part of its surrender to the Allies. This includes forbidding the use of military force as a means of solving international disputes.

An H-2A rocket, Japan’s primary large-scale launch vehicle. Credit: JAXA

It also included placing limitations on its Self-Defense Forces so they would not be capable of independent military action. As is stated in Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan (passed in 1947):

“(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

However, since 2014, the Japanese government has sought to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution, claiming that it allows the JSDF the freedom to defend other allies in case of war. This move has largely been in response to mounting tensions with North Korea over its development of nuclear weapons, as well as disputes with China over issues of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

This interpretation has been the official line of the Japanese Diet since 2015, as part of a series of measures that would allow the JSDF to provide material support to allies engaged in combat internationally. This justification, which claims that Japan and its allies would be endangered otherwise, has been endorsed by the United States. However, to some observers, it may very well be interpreted as an attempt by Japan to re-militarize.

In the coming weeks, the DSN 2 spacecraft will use its on-board engine to position itself in geostationary orbit, roughly 35,800 km (22,300 mi) above the equator. Once there, it will commence a final round of in-orbit testing before commencing its 15-year term of service.

Further Reading: Spaceflight Now