Japan’s Ispace Lander launches to the Moon with a rover from the United Arab Emirates

Japan’s Ispace Lander launches to the Moon with a rover from the United Arab Emirates

Another day, another rocket launch by SpaceX and another spacecraft going to the moon. This all seems commonplace these days.

SpaceX has already launched its Falcon 9 rocket more than 50 times this year. NASA’s Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight that is a precursor to future astronaut missions, is nearing its return to Earth after orbiting the moon. CAPSTONE, a small CubeSat sponsored by NASA, is still orbiting the Moon after being launched in June. A robotic South Korean orbiter, Danuriwas launched to the moon in August.

But the lunar landing that was carried Sunday by a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is not a NASA mission. Instead, known as M1, it is from a small Japanese company, Ispace. M1 payloads include a rover from the United Arab Emirates and a small two-wheeled Transformers-like robot for the Japanese space agency.

Although the mission lifted off at 2:38 a.m. ET, you’ll have to wait until April to see if these robotic explorers make it, potentially becoming the first payload carried by success on the lunar surface by a private company.

The company began as one of the contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition that offered a $20 million prize for the first private spacecraft to land on the moon, travel 500 meters and send video from the lunar surface.

At the time, the Japanese group, known as Team Hakuto, was focused on developing a rover, and was relying on a competing team from India to make the trip to the moon’s surface. If this had worked, the two rovers would have been racing to see which could cover the 500 meters first.

However, the The Lunar X award has expired before either team reached the launch pad. An Israeli competitor, SpaceIL, launched its craft in 2019, however his moon crashed on the lunar surface.

The group known as Team Hakuto evolved into Ispace, attracting significant investment, and the company plans to launch a series of commercial lunar landers in the coming years.

For Sunday’s mission, the payloads include the Rashid lunar rover from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai; a two-wheeled “transformable lunar robot” from JAXA, the Japanese space agency; a test module for a solid state battery from NGK Spark Plug Company; an artificial intelligence flight computer; and 360-degree cameras from Canadansys Aerospace.

As a vestige of its Lunar X Prize heritage, it also carries a panel engraved with the names of people who supported the crowdfunding and a music disc with a song performed by Japanese rock group Sakanaction.

The landing of the Japanese company is not the only passenger on Sunday’s flight. A secondary payload on the Falcon 9 is a small NASA mission, Lunar Flashlight, which involves entering an elliptical orbit around the Moon and using an infrared laser to probe deep, dark craters in the polar regions of the moon.

Like some other recent lunar missions, M1 is taking a tortuous, energy-efficient journey to the moon and won’t land in Atlas Crater in the moon’s northern hemisphere until late April. The fuel-efficient trajectory allows the mission to pack more payload and carry less fuel.

As part of the Artemis I mission, NASA’s Orion spacecraft traveled to the Moon and then orbited it. It will return to Earth later Sunday, with a splash in the Pacific Ocean.

A small NASA-funded mission called CAPSTONE also recently arrived to explore an orbit in which NASA plans to build a lunar outpost where astronauts will stop on their way to the Moon.

And although it hasn’t arrived yet, the moon will receive a third new visitor next month. Danuri, a South Korean space probeit was launched in August and is due to enter lunar orbit on December 16. The spacecraft will help develop technology for future Korean missions, and also carries scientific instruments to study the moon’s chemical composition and magnetic field.

A NASA program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, has been looking to send surface experiments to the Moon. The first two missions, from Intuitive Machines of Houston and Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, are scheduled to launch next year after considerable delays. The Intuitive Machines lander, which could launch as early as March, could even beat Ispace to the moon because it uses a fast six-day trajectory.

As it is not an American company, Ispace could not participate directly in the NASA program. However, it is part of a team led by Draper Technologies of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that has won a CLPS mission from NASA. This mission is scheduled to begin in 2025.

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