SpaceX is set to launch two spacecraft to the moon tonight

SpaceX is set to launch two spacecraft to the moon tonight

Zoom in / The Hakuto-R spacecraft is encased in a Falcon 9 fairing.


It’s been a busy second half of the year for the Moon. Since late June, three US rockets have launched payloads to the moon, and one more is scheduled for Friday morning.

In those four launches, two on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, one on Rocket Lab’s Electron and one on NASA’s Space Launch System, there have been a total of 15 spacecraft sent to fly around the Moon, enter orbit or land there. The most notable of these, of course NASA’s Orion spacecraftwhich must return to Earth on December 11.

This represents a remarkable renaissance in lunar exploration. Consider that from 1973 to 2022, NASA and the United States sent a total of 15 spacecraft to the Moon over a five-decade period. Now, thanks to a mix of commercial, academic and government payloads, US rockets will launch 15 spacecraft to the Moon in about five months.


Next up is a Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to launch Thursday at 3:37 a.m. ET (8:37 UTC) from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its primary payload is a commercial spacecraft and lander known as the Hakuto-R mission, which was developed by a Japanese company called ispace.

The mission was delayed a day after SpaceX said it needed time for “additional checks,” which is a generic term the company uses when it needs more time to address various technical launch issues. This relatively small lander will spend about three months following a long trajectory to reach the Moon, allowing it to get there with a minimal amount of fuel.

With the Hakuto-R vehicle, ispace aims to become the first private company to successfully land a spacecraft on another world. And if the company is successful, Japan would become the fourth country (after the United States, the Soviet Union and China) to land on the moon.

Landing on the moon is a big challenge. In recent years, efforts by India and an Israeli-backed organization, SpaceIL, have failed to achieve a soft landing on the moon.

Among the payloads carried by the Hakuto-R lander is the Rashid lunar rover, which was built by the United Arab Emirates. It is a small rover, about 10 kg in mass, and will carry two high-resolution cameras as an experiment to study the adhesion of lunar dust.

More to come

NASA is also sending a spacecraft to the Moon on this Falcon 9 launch as a secondary passenger. This tiny Lunar Lantern mission, a 6U CubeSat the size of a briefcase, is destined for a nearly rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, similar to the one private there. CAPSTONE SPACECRAFT entered earlier this fall.

The objective of this mission will be to look for ice on the Moon. Four lasers will emit near-infrared light that is easily absorbed by water ice. The greater the absorption observed in lunar craters, the more likely ice is present. This mission should help inform future robotic and human efforts to explore lunar ice deposits.

As busy as this period has been for the Moon, there is much more to come. In the first half of 2023, two US commercial companies, Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic, are expected to attempt to land on the moon for NASA. India, Japan and possibly even Russia also plan to launch missions to the Moon by 2023.

Later this decade, of course, NASA is building its entire Artemis program around lunar exploration, including human missions and the possibility of a settlement later this decade. China is also looking to lead an ambitious program on the Moon, with the possible landing of its own astronauts within a decade.

After 50 years, the Moon is back.

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