Ispace’s Japanese Moon Lander Crashed Because of Software Glitch

Ispace’s Japanese Moon Lander Crashed Because of Software Glitch

Why it matters: Learning and improvement.

A review of the data showed that the software guiding the descent appeared to lose track of the landers’ altitude when they passed over the rim of a crater on the moon’s surface that was about two miles higher than the surrounding terrain.

The software mistakenly concluded that the sensor had malfunctioned and discarded altitude measurements that were actually accurate.

The engine, altimeter, and other equipment worked properly, indicating that the overall design of the ship is sound. Software fixes are easier to complete than major hardware repairs.

“This is not a hardware failure,” said Ryo Ujiie, Ispace’s chief technology officer, during a press conference on Friday. “We don’t need to modify the hardware side.”

The failure, however, pointed to deficiencies in the testing of Ispace’s spacecraft landing software, which was developed by Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass.

A decision to change the landing site after the spacecraft design was finalized in early 2021 most likely contributed to the crash.

Initially, Ispace officials had chosen Lacus Somniorum, a flat field, as the landing site. But then they decided that Atlas, an impact crater more than 50 miles across, would be a more interesting destination.

This meant that the landing software was not designed to handle the change in altitude when the spacecraft passed over the crater rim, and the simulations did not capture that oversight.

On Tuesday, NASA released images taken by its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that appeared to show the crash site.

Background: A bumpy path to the moon.

A mix of private companies, organizations and government space agencies have been trying to return to the moon in recent years. But landing on the lunar surface has turned out to be more difficult than many expected.

The Beresheet lander, from an Israeli non-profit organization called SpaceIL, launched to the moon in 2019 but crashed. The Indian Space Research Organization attempted to land a lunar spacecraft that same year, and that vehicle, the Vikram, also crashed.

Only China has landed robotic spacecraft on the moon recently, with three successes in three attempts over the past decade.

What’s next: Try, try again.

Takeshi Hakamada, Ispace’s founder and chief executive, said the schedule for the company’s next two missions — which include a nearly identical lander next year and a larger spacecraft in 2025 to the far side of the moon — remains largely unchanged. .

“We have a very clear picture of how to improve our future missions,” Mr. Hakamada said.

Ispace had secured insurance for the landing and the financial impacts on the company would be minor, Mr. Hakamada said.

More spacecraft are scheduled to launch to the moon later this year. As part of a NASA program that is hiring private companies to take scientific instruments to the moon, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines of Houston are scheduled to send spacecraft to the moon later this year.

The Indian space agency also announced this week that Chandrayaan-3, a follow-up to its 2019 moon landing attempt, could launch as early as July 12.

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