A Japanese company is pushing ahead with plans to launch a private lunar lander by the end of 2022, a year filled with other moonshot ambitions and rehearsals that could predict how quickly humans will return to the lunar surface.
If the plans hold, Tokyo-based ispace company would facilitate the first intact landing by a Japanese spacecraft on the moon. And by the time it arrives, it may find other new visitors who have already started exploring the lunar regolith from Russia and the United States this year. (Yutu-2, a Chinese rover, is currently the only robotic mission on the moon.)
Other missions in 2022 are planned to orbit the moon, most notably the NASA Artemis-1 mission, a pivotal unmanned test of U.S. hardware intended to take astronauts back to the moon. South Korea could also launch its first lunar orbiter later this year.
But other countries that had hoped to reach the moon in 2022 have fallen behind. India planned to make its second robotic moon landing attempt this year. But the Chandrayaan-3 mission was delayed until mid-2023, said K. Sivan, who completed his term as chairman of the country’s space agency this month. Russia, on the other hand, remains confident that its Luna-25 lander will take off this summer.
The ispace-built M1 lunar lander is the size of a small hot tub. It is in the final stages of assembly in Germany at the facilities of Ariane Group, the company’s European partner, which built the rocket that recently launched the James Webb Space Telescope.
If structural testing goes according to plan in April, M1 will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a launch on one of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.
“As of today, the specific launch date is the end of 2022 at the earliest,” Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, said at a press conference in Japan on Tuesday.
The moon landing would take place three to four months later, as the mission uses a long lunar trajectory to save fuel and maximize the amount of cargo the M1 lander can carry.
Several years ago, ispace was a finalist in the Google Lunar X Prize – a competition that ended in 2018 with no winners of a $20 million prize intended to boost private lunar missions. Although it didn’t win the Google award, the company raised more than $90 million in 2017 and sees a healthy business moving forward to the lunar surface for governments, research institutions and private companies.
The ambitious timeline expects more than 10 moon landings in the coming years, under a flurry of space companies looking to mine the moon with robots for precious resources like iron and silicon that can be returned to Earth or used to expand structures on the lunar surface. .
Clients for ispace’s first moon landing include Japan’s space agency JAXA, which plans to test a small rover that can change shape for different terrains, and the United Arab Emirates’ space program, which is launching its first lunar rover, a four-wheeled robot. called Rashid.
Nations and private companies have set their sights on the moon in recent years because of its potential to serve as a stopping place for spacecraft and other technologies that could be used for future missions to Mars. The Artemis program relies heavily on private companies to lower the cost of traveling to the moon and hopes to stimulate a commercial market for various lunar services.
While ispace’s M1 mission is primarily intended to demonstrate operations on the moon, the company’s next mission, M2, will carry its own “micro-rover” built to drive over the surface and lunar terrain. to study. That mission was postponed to 2024 from 2023 due to changes in technical planning and to accommodate its customers’ timelines, said Hideki Shimomura, ispace chief technology officer.
Two American companies are also aiming for the moon before the end of the year; Astrobotic, a space robotics company in Pittsburgh, and Intuitive Machines of Houston. Both firms are building their spacecraft with support from the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, a NASA program that aims to help fund the development of private landers that can send research instruments to the lunar surface.