Another day, SpaceX launches another rocket, and another spacecraft heads for the moon. All of this seems commonplace these days.
SpaceX has launched more than 50 Falcon 9 rockets this year. NASA’s Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight and precursor to future astronaut missions, is about to return to Earth after orbiting the moon. CAPSTONE, a small NASA-sponsored cubesat, is still orbiting the moon after launching in June. South Korea’s robotic orbiter Danuri was launched in August.
But Sunday’s lunar lander, carried by a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is not a NASA mission. Instead, it’s called the M1, and it comes from a small Japanese company, Ispace. Payloads on M1 include a rover from the United Arab Emirates and a small two-wheeled Transformer robot from the Japanese space agency.
While 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 there, and it could be the first cargo successfully delivered to the lunar surface by a private company.
What is Ispace and what is it sending to the moon?
The company started out as one of the competitors for the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition offering $20 million to the first private spacecraft to land on the moon, fly 500 meters and send video back from the lunar surface.
At the time, the Japanese team known as Team Hakuto was focused on developing the rover and was relying on a competing team from India to reach the lunar surface. If successful, the two rovers will race to see who can cover the 500 meters first.
However, the Lunar X Prize expires before any team reaches the launch pad. Israeli rival SpaceIL launched its spacecraft in 2019, but its lunar lander crashed on the lunar surface.
The group called Team Hakuto that evolved into Ispace has attracted significant investment, and the company plans to launch a series of commercial lunar landers in the coming years.
For Sunday’s mission, the payloads included the Rashid lunar rover from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai; a two-wheeled “transformable lunar robot” from Japan’s space agency JAXA; a solid-state battery test module from NGK Spark Plug; an artificial intelligence flight computer; and a 360-degree camera from Canadasys Aerospace.
As a remnant of its Lunar X Prize legacy, it also features a panel with the names of those who provided crowdfunding support and a music disc featuring songs by Japanese rock group Sakanaction.
The Japanese company’s lander wasn’t the only passenger on Sunday’s flight. The Falcon 9’s second payload is a small NASA mission called Lunar Flashlight, which will enter an elliptical orbit around the moon and use infrared lasers to probe deep, dark craters in the moon’s polar regions.
Why did Ispace take so long to reach the moon?
Much like some other recent moon missions, M1 is making a devious, energy-efficient trip to the Moon, and won’t land in Atlas Crater in the moon’s northern hemisphere until late April. The fuel-efficient trajectory enables missions to load more payload and carry less fuel.
What are the other closest visitors to the Moon?
NASA’s Orion spacecraft traveled to and then orbited the moon as part of its Artemis 1 mission. It will return to Earth later on Sunday and splash down into the Pacific Ocean.
A small NASA-funded mission called CAPSTONE also recently arrived to explore an orbit where NASA plans to build a lunar outpost where astronauts will stop on their way to the Moon .
While it hasn’t arrived yet, the moon will welcome a third new visitor next month. South Korean space probe Danuri launched in August and is scheduled to enter lunar orbit in December. 16. The spacecraft, which will contribute to the technological development of future Korean missions, also carries scientific instruments to study the moon’s chemical composition and magnetic field.
Are other companies trying to do what Ispace is doing?
A NASA program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) has been looking to send experiments to the lunar surface. The first two missions from Houston’s Intuitive Machines and Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology are scheduled to launch next year after considerable delays. Intuitive Machines’ lander, which could launch as early as March, could even beat Ispace to the moon because it uses a fast six-day orbit.
Since it is not a US company, Ispace cannot directly participate in NASA programs. However, it is part of a team led by Draper Technologies of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that won NASA’s CLPS mission. The mission is scheduled to launch in 2025.