Japan’s SLIM lunar lander made it to the moon, but it’ll likely die within hours

A problem with the lander's solar cell has prevented it from generating electricity as planned.


Japan has become the fifth country to successfully land on the moon after confirming today that its SLIM lander survived its descent to the surface — but its mission is likely to be short lived. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, says the spacecraft is having problems with its solar cell and is unable to generate electricity. In its current state, the battery may only have enough juice to keep it running a few more hours.

Based on how the other instruments are functioning, JAXA said in a press conference this afternoon that it’s evident SLIM did make a soft landing. The spacecraft has been able to communicate with Earth and receive commands, but is operating on a low battery. It’s unclear what exactly the issue with the solar cell is beyond the fact that it’s not functioning.

There’s a chance that the panels are just not facing the right direction to be receiving sunlight right now, which would mean it could start charging when the sun changes position. But, JAXA says it needs more time to understand what has happened. LEV-1 and LEV-2, two small rovers that accompanied SLIM to the moon, were able to successfully separate from the lander as planned before it touched down, and so far appear to be in working condition.

JAXA says it’s now focusing on maximizing the operational time it has left with SLIM to get as much data as possible from the landing. SLIM — the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon — has also been called the “Moon Sniper” due to its precision landing technology, which is supposed to put it within 100 meters of its target, the Shioli crater. The agency is planning to hold another press conference next week to share more updates.

Though its time may be running out, SLIM’s landing was still a major feat. Only four other countries have successfully landed on the moon: the US, China, India and Russia. The latest American attempt, the privately led Peregrine Mission One, ended in failure after the spacecraft began leaking propellant shortly after its January 8 launch. It managed to hang on for several more days and even reached lunar distance, but had no chance of a soft landing. Astrobotic, the company behind the lander, confirmed last night that Peregrine made a controlled reentry, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific.