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Japan's moon probe nailed its landing but took a tumble

Japan’s moon lander nailed its tricky, “pinpoint” touchdown on the lunar surface, officials from the country’s space agency announced Thursday, but a newly released image revealed that the spacecraft became overturned in the process.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as JAXA, confirmed that the mission achieved its goal of a precision landing within 100 meters (328 feet) of its target — a feat that could broaden the number of potential landing sites for future missions to the moon.

With the successful touchdown of the SLIM lander (short for Smart Lander for Investigating Moon), Japan became the fifth country in history to achieve a controlled or “soft” landing on the moon. Only the United States, the former Soviet Union, China and India can similarly boast about such an accomplishment.

The SLIM mission represents another giant leap forward in lunar exploration.

A wheeled rover that was released before the SLIM craft landed snapped a photo that appears to show the probe upsidedown on the moon’s surface. As such, the lander’s solar panels are not angled properly to harness sunlight and power up the probe, according to JAXA.

The agency said there is still a chance that the lander could recover and generate power as sunlight shifts in the coming days.

“Although SLIM’s activities on the Moon were originally expected to last only a few days, the necessary preparations for recovery will continue in order to acquire further technical and scientific data,” JAXA officials said in a statement.

Space probes typically aim for landing sites that are at least several miles wide, but JAXA said the achievement of a pinpoint landing opens up new opportunities.

“We proved that you can land wherever you want, rather than where you are able to,” said Shinichiro Sakai, the SLIM lander’s project manager, according to Reuters.

Sakai added that the mission “will inspire more and more people, desirably Japanese missions, to try to land on unexplored places on the moon.”

JAXA on Thursday discussed the outcome of the moon landing, revealing new details about how the loss of one of the probe’s two main engines during the final descent caused it to land harder than anticipated. The glitch likely also caused the lander to settle roughly 55 meters (180 feet) east of its targeted landing spot, mission managers said.

Had both engines performed as expected, the spacecraft could have pulled off an even more precise landing, touching down within 10 meters (33 feet) or less of its target, according to JAXA.

The SLIM mission launched Sept. 6 and entered into orbit around the moon several months later. The lander’s main goal was to demonstrate its highly precise navigation and landing system, but it also deployed small rovers to carry out temperature and radiation experiments, among other science objectives.

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