Japan aims to become the fifth country to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface with the launch of a low-cost "moon sniper" on Thursday that will test precision landing technology designed to further Tokyo’s space goals.
The launch comes weeks after India became the first country to land on the moon's south pole, sparking an outpouring of national pride and highlighting a new space race that features the private sector.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission is scheduled to take off from Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Japan on Thursday, according to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries 7011.T, which oversees launches for JAXA and builds the H-IIA rocket carrying the lander.
The Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) craft - dubbed "moon sniper" by JAXA - is set to touch down on the near side of the moon close to Mare Nectaris, a lunar basin that is one of the visible dark spots on the moon.
The mission is meant to demonstrate Japan's ability to put a lightweight, low-cost craft on the moon within 100 meters of a designated landing site using an advanced visual navigation system.
The landing is likely to be a "breathless, numbing 20 minutes of terror," Kenji Kushiki, the sub-project manager of the SLIM mission, said in a blog post on a JAXA website, adding that landing was akin to a "one-shot game that cannot be undone."
Japan's efforts to build a homegrown space industry are also on display: The lander was assembled by Mitsubishi Electric 6503.T, using its landing radars, computers and transponder. Sharp Corp 6753.T supplied solar cells and Meisei Electric supplied the navigation cameras.
The $100-million mission is expected to reach the moon by February after traveling along a looping, fuel-efficient trajectory of Earth to moon orbits.
Delhi last month put its Chandrayaan-3 rover lander down near the moon's south pole in a $75 million mission. That made India the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon after the United States, Russia and China.
"Precise landing technology gives the ability and confidence for future human space exploration missions. Such technologies could be extended to reusable launch vehicle missions, which can make future missions more cost effective," said Sreeram Ananthasayanam, a partner at Deloitte India.
Two earlier attempts by Japan to land on the moon failed. JAXA lost contact with a lander carried by a NASA rocket and scrubbed an attempted landing in November. A lander made by Japanese startup ispace 9348.T crashed in April as it attempted to descend to the lunar surface.
More recently, Russia's first moon mission in nearly half a century, Luna-25, crashed while trying to land on the lunar south pole in August, days ahead of India's mission.
Japan is cooperating with the US on a moon-orbiting space station that will serve as a staging post for missions to the Moon and Mars. In return, Washington has promised Japan seats on future crewed Artemis missions to the moon.