A Japanese company called ispace is getting ready to launch its Hakuto-R lunar lander on 30 November. If the mission is a success, it will be the first spacecraft funded and built by a private firm to land on the moon – provided it isn’t beaten by competitors set to launch next year on a more direct route through space.
The Israeli non-profit SpaceIL made a similar landing attempt in 2019 with the Beresheet spacecraft, but it experienced a fatal engine flaw during the landing attempt and ended up crashing into the lunar surface. Like SpaceIL, ispace started working on its lander as part of the Google Lunar X Prize, which offered a cash prize to the first successful moon landing not funded by a government. The prize ended without a winner in January 2018, and so far, only governments – the US, the Soviet Union and China – have managed to land on the moon.
Since the X Prize, ispace has grown to become a multinational firm with offices in Japan, the US and Luxembourg. “We’re a quite international business already, and I’d like to position ispace as an international bridge between the US and other companies,” says ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada. The company now has contracts with NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) for future missions to land on the far side of the moon and collect samples of lunar dust and water, as well as other collaborations with companies and agencies around the world.
Its first mission, called M-1, is set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 30 November. The lander will carry a small rover for the United Arab Emirates’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, an even smaller two-wheeled robot for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and a camera and flight computer prototype for Canadian companies. If it succeeds, it will not only be the first private moon landing, but also the first time any craft from Japan or the United Arab Emirates has visited the lunar surface.
Hakuto-R’s path to the moon is a circuitous one, designed to require less fuel so the spacecraft can fit more scientific payloads aboard. Rather than flying straight there, it will use the gravity of Earth and the sun to give it an extra push during its four-month voyage. The 2-metre-tall craft will weigh about 1000 kilograms when it launches, but most of that mass is propellant that will be burned on the way, and the lander will have a mass of only 340 kilograms by the time it touches down.
Once it arrives at the moon, it will spend about two weeks in orbit, with each circle around the moon taking it closer to the surface. Finally, if all goes well, it will land softly in an area called Atlas crater.
There is a slight wrench in ispace’s plan to be the first private firm on the moon, though: there are two other contenders, both from the US. While both the Nova-C lander, built by Intuitive Machines, and the Peregrine lander from Astrobotic aren’t scheduled to launch until early next year, they will take more direct routes to the moon and could potentially beat Hakuto-R there.
“We don’t care very much about who is going to land first,” says Hakamada. “Our vision is to create an economically viable lunar ecosystem – I don’t think it’s possible to do that with only one company, so we want several companies to do business there.” The company has two more lunar missions already in development, with the goal of maintaining momentum with launches in 2024 and 2025.
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