Japan’s space agency announced that the country would put an unmanned rover on the surface of the moon by 2018, joining an elite club of countries who have explored Earth’s satellite.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), disclosed the plan to an expert panel, including members of the cabinet, late last week.
“This is an initial step and a lot of procedures are still ahead before the plan is formally approved,” a JAXA spokesperson said.
Should it be approved, the agency will use its Epsilon solid-fuel rocket technology to carry and deploy the probe — named SLIM — on the surface of the celestial body. SLIM is an acronym that stands for “Smart Lander for Investigating Moon”
Japanese media estimates that the mission will cost in the region of $83.4 million to $125 million, relatively little cost considering the difficulty level. JAXA spokesperson Chihito Onda said that the estimate is realistic.
The mission will be used to perfect soft-landing technologies, which could be utilized in future, manned expeditions to the moon, or even Mars. The lander will re-purpose face recognition software found in digital cameras to recognize craters on the surface, Onda said.
The move is seen as Japan playing catch-up to Asian neighbors China and India, which have both notched significant space victories in recent years. China’s Yutu lunar rover outlasted expectations and India successfully put a small probe into orbit around Mars.
In 2008 Japan put its SELENE craft into orbit around the moon to gather data about its surface. The data gathered by the orbiter will also be used in the current mission to calculate a landing site for the rover.
JAXA has also put a probe on an asteroid, which it then returned to Earth in 2010.
China, the United States and Russia are the only other nations to have so far landed craft on the surface of the moon.