Artemis 1's tiny Japanese probe abandons moon landing try

artist's conception of a small spacecraft firing its engines while deploying a rolling lander on the surface of the moon. an orange spiral suggests the lander's movements
A rendering of the Japanese lunar lander OMOTENASHI above the lunar surface. (Image credit: JAXA)

A tiny Japanese moon lander won't make it to the lunar surface after all.

Trackers of the OMOTENASHI moon spacecraft, a rideshare with NASA's Artemis 1 mission that launched on Nov. 16, failed to pick up the cubesat's wobbly signal in time for its planned lunar landing, Japanese officials said on Twitter.

"Communication with the spacecraft could not be established, and it was determined that the lunar landing maneuver (DV2) operation could not be performed," the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) tweeted (opens in new tab) on Monday (Nov. 21). (Translation provided by Google.)

OMOTENASHI and nine other cubesats separated from the Artemis 1 Space Launch System rocket shortly after launch. The tiny Japanese flyer was spotted in space on Sunday (Nov. 20) and Monday, JAXA added, giving hope that it can be redirected to a new mission around March 2023, when communication conditions may improve. 

In photos: Amazing views of NASA's Artemis 1 moon rocket debut 

In the meantime, an investigation is ongoing to find out why the little probe couldn't be hailed in time. Initial communications from a ground station suggested that the cubesat's solar cells were not facing the sun and it was rotating swiftly. The team tried to correct this by venting some fuel to counteract the movement, they wrote on Twitter (opens in new tab), but "insufficient voltage" forced the team to turn off the transmitter.

The spacecraft, whose name is short for "Outstanding MOon exploration Technologies demonstrated by NAno Semi-Hard Impactor," was originally expected to attempt a hard landing from an altitude of 328 to 626 feet (100 to 200 meters) above the lunar surface. (The daring dive would have been cushioned with airbags and a shock absorption system to allow the spacecraft to survive the attempt.)

But now the cubesat is drifting alone in deep space, and for the next few months orbital dynamics between Earth and OMOTENASHI (along with sunlight conditions relative to the spacecraft's uncontrolled position) are not favorable to attempt a new mission. But those doors could open in the spring, mission officials added via Twitter.

Related: Japan's hopping rovers capture amazing views of asteroid Ryugu (video)

NASA's Artemis 1 mission successfully launched on Nov. 16, 2022 with 10 cubesats aboard, including a tiny Japanese lunar lander. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

The cubesat, mission officials wrote in Japanese (opens in new tab), "will fly by the moon, approach the Earth once, and then escape from the Earth's gravitational sphere." In March, the rotation of the spacecraft (assuming it remains consistent) should better align with the sun, allowing it to pull more power from solar radiation.

"We plan to resume exploration operations around that time, and once communication with the spacecraft is established, we would like to conduct tests that can be carried out in orbit," mission officials said (opens in new tab). The tests will focus on tools to let small spacecraft explore far-out destinations in the future, they added (opens in new tab), but little other information is available from the tweet thread.

While this Japanese landing on the moon didn't go to plan, the country did have success on an asteroid with Hayabusa2. In between the main sample-return mission, two near-twin rovers dropped onto the surface of the asteroid Ryugu in 2018 and explored, sending out footage as they hopped. OMOTENASHI would have been the country's first lunar lander, however.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace