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SYFY WIRE Pitch Black

NASA's LRO Spacecraft Found the Remains of That Crashed Lunar Lander

Scientists suspected a catastrophic crash, now we know for sure.

By Cassidy Ward
A model of a lunar roving vehicle displayed at Ispace Inc.'s Hakuto-R Mission Control Center

David Twothy’s sci-fi classic Pitch Black opens on the Hunter-Gratzner, a transport ship delivering an eclectic group of passengers (including the mysterious Furyan, Richard B. Riddick, as played by Vin Diesel) through space. Hit by a shotgun blast of micrometeoroids, the ship makes an emergency landing attempt on a nearby planet. They do land, but they land hard, killing most of the passengers and disabling the ship.

An unintentional hard landing has befallen countless fictional and non-fictional spacecraft, despite our attempts to avoid them. One such landing occurred on April 25, 2023, when the private lunar lander Hakuto-R, designed and operated by private spaceflight company ispace, descended toward the lunar surface after 135 days in space. It would have been the first private spacecraft to soft land on the Moon, and would have made Japan the fourth nation to achieve that feat, but it wasn’t meant to be.

RELATED:  World's First Private Lunar Lander Is Missing, Presumed Dead

During the descent stage, ground control lost communication with the spacecraft. That’s not a death knell necessarily, there are countless reasons a spacecraft might temporarily lose communication without having been destroyed. However, after several attempts to re-establish communication, they were forced to conclude that the lander had been lost. Now, NASA scientists have identified the remains of the lander on the lunar surface.

The day after the lander was lost, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) took 10 images of the area around Hakuto-R’s intended landing site at Atlas crater, using its Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs). Each image covers an area roughly 40 kilometers by 45 kilometers. The resolution isn’t great, but scientists were able to compare the new images with previously acquired images to look for differences in the terrain.

Hakuto Crash Site Comparison

Flipping back and forth between the new and old images reveals what NASA scientists referred to as “an unusual surface change” near the intended landing site. Based on preliminary analysis, it’s believed that the spacecraft broke into at least four large pieces, which are now visible on the lunar surface. The images also show what appears to be a small crater that wasn’t there before. It is suspected to be the actual impact site.

As NASA’s LRO continues to make passes around the Moon, it will continue to take pictures of the crash site from different angles and under different lighting conditions. Future images may reveal more about what went wrong and the ultimate fate of Hakuto-R.

In the meantime, ispace is moving ahead with their next lunar mission, with hopes of achieving a soft landing the next time around.

A crash isn’t always a bad thing, just ask Riddick. Or watch Pitch Black and see for yourself.