Japan lands, Mars helicopter awakes

Japan has become the fifth nation to land a vehicle on the Moon.

It achieved the feat on Saturday when its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) spacecraft set down on the lunar surface.

The successful landing sees Japan join the United States, Soviet Union, China and India as the only nations to have done so.

The Japanese Space Agency JAXA confirmed SLIM’s landing took place at 12.20am JST/2.20am AEDT on Saturday, however acknowledged a critical issue with the vehicle.

While communication with SLIM has been established, the solar cells mounted to the craft have not generated power for the vehicle. This may be due to the panels being incorrectly angled towards the Sun.

As a result, the short-life battery on board SLIM was used to transmit collected data back to mission control. According to mission control, SLIM was powered down with 12% of battery remaining, though it remains hopeful that the west-facing solar cells will be exposed to sunlight and with it “a possibility of generating power”.

JAXA will provide a SLIM status update at the end of the week.

Communication lost, then found, with Ingenuity

After several days without signal, NASA’s Mars Ingenuity Helicopter has spluttered back to life.

A still image of ingenuity's 54th test flight as seen by the mars perseverance rover.
A still image of Ingenuity’s 54th test flight as seen by the Mars Perseverance Rover. Credit: NASA

Ingenuity is a unique space vehicle, which was deployed with the Perseverance rover as a tech demonstration of powered and controlled flight on another planet.

Although it was only scheduled for 30 days and half-a-dozen test flights, the 50cm tall rotorcraft has persisted across nearly 3 years of operation, and now 72 flights.

But to operate, it requires the Perseverance rover to act as a relay for communications back to Earth.

Over the weekend, NASA issued a notice saying those communications had been lost after the rover lost line-of-sight with Ingenuity, however, the signal had been restored on Sunday afternoon, leaving the window open for a 73rd flight.

“We’ve re-established contact with the Mars Helicopter after instructing NASA Perseverance to perform long-duration listening sessions for Ingenuity’s signal,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on X (formerly Twitter).

“The team is reviewing the new data to better understand the unexpected comms dropout during Flight 72.”

A small solar panel mounted atop Ingenuity keeps the machine powered overnight and helps perform vital functions including signal transmission.

NASA zaps Indian space rover with a laser beam

After making history in August 2023 as the first craft to successfully land at the Moon’s south pole, India’s ‘Vikram’ lunar lander has written another record into the books.

NASA confirmed that it transmitted a laser to the Indian Space Research Organization’s vehicle from its orbiting LRO satellite.

That laser travelled 100km from orbit and back again, completing the first instance of an orbital craft ‘pinging’ a land-based vehicle on the Moon.

A round brass-coloured dome with eight circular quartz inserts.
The 5cm wide retroreflector mounted to the Vikram rover. Credit: NASA Goddard.

Before liftoff, Vikram was mounted with a special NASA retroreflector – a domed array with 8 quartz prisms configured to reflect light beamed towards it from any direction.

The successful test paves the way for future space missions, where orbiting satellites or crewed spacecraft can quickly identify landed vehicles.

Similar retroreflectors were mounted to SLIM and will be placed on the Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission, which is hoping to become the first commercial spacecraft to land on the Moon in February.

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