A Japanese space startup has launched its own private lander to the Moon aboard a SpaceX rocket, marking a significant step towards what would be a historic first, both for the nation and a private company.
The Tokyo-based ispace Inc’s HAKUTO-R mission took off without incident from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday after two postponements caused by inspections of its SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The company designed its craft to use minimal fuel to save money and leave more room for cargo.
It is taking a slow, low-energy path to the Moon, flying 1.6 million km (one million miles) from Earth before looping back and making a planned landing by the end of April.
By contrast, NASA’s Orion crew capsule with test dummies took five days to reach the Moon last month. The lunar flyby mission is anticipated to end on Sunday with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
The ispace craft aims to put a small NASA satellite into lunar orbit to search for water deposits before touching down in the Atlas Crater, which lies in the northeastern section of the Moon’s near side and measures more than 87km (54 miles) across and just over 2km (1.2 miles) deep.
The M1 lander will deploy two robotic rovers, a two-wheeled, orange-sized device from Japan’s JAXA space agency and a four-wheeled unit made by the United Arab Emirates, known as the Explorer Rashid, after the Dubai royal family patriarch.
It will also be carrying an experimental solid-state battery made by NGK Spark Plug Co, a Japanese-based spark plug company.
The national space agencies of the United States, Russia and China have achieved soft landings on Earth’s nearest neighbour in the past half century, but Japan has not nor have any private companies.
Mission success would also represent a milestone in space cooperation between Japan and the US at a time when China is becoming increasingly competitive and rides on Russian rockets are no longer available in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The company hopes the HAKUTO-R project – whose name refers to the white rabbit that Japanese folklore suggests lives on the Moon – will be the first of many deliveries of government and commercial payloads.
It has a contract with NASA to ferry payloads to the Moon from 2025 and is aiming to build a permanently staffed lunar colony by 2040.
Sunday also marked the 50th anniversary of the astronauts’ last lunar landing by Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on December 11, 1972.
Takeshi Hakamada, ispace’s founder and CEO, said NASA’s Apollo moonshots were all “about the excitement of the technology”.
Now, he noted in the SpaceX launch webcast, “it’s the excitement of the business”.
“This is the dawn of the lunar economy … Let’s go to the Moon,” Hakamada said.
Liftoff had originally been scheduled for two weeks ago but was delayed by SpaceX for extra rocket checks.
Eight minutes after launch, the recycled first-stage booster landed back at Cape Canaveral under a near-full Moon, the double sonic booms echoing through the night.
Founded in 2010, ispace was among the finalists in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition requiring a successful landing on the Moon by 2018. The lunar rover built by ispace never launched.
Another finalist, an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL, managed to reach the Moon in 2019. But instead of landing gently, the spacecraft Beresheet slammed into the Moon and was destroyed.