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Japanese company launches moon lander on a SpaceX rocket

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/30/2022 Christian Davenport
A Japanese lunar lander hopes to land at the moon's south pole in five months. © Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images A Japanese lunar lander hopes to land at the moon's south pole in five months.

SpaceX on Sunday launched a moon lander developed by a Japanese commercial company, one of several lunar landing attempts scheduled by private companies in the months ahead.

Lifting off from Cape Canaveral at 2:38 a.m., the Falcon 9 rocket carried the 7½-foot-tall lander developed by the Japanese company ispace. It is scheduled to travel for about five months before reaching the moon.

In an interview before the launch, ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada said he was confident that the mission would succeed and help “open the door for a new cislunar commercial industry. We are very excited for this opportunity.” Cislunar means the space between Earth and the moon.

The launch comes as NASA is working with a number of private companies to send what it hopes will eventually be a fleet of robotic landers to the moon, ahead of an eventual human landing as part of its Artemis program. Next year, two companies, Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic, intend to fly spacecraft there under contract with NASA.

A spokesperson from Intuitive Machines said that the company hopes to launch sometime between March and May next year and that it would take between four and seven days for its lander to reach the moon’s surface. Astrobotic has said that its Peregrine spacecraft is scheduled to launch during the first quarter of next year.

No commercial entity has ever landed a spacecraft on the moon.

The ispace mission, known as Hakuto-R, has been years in the making. The spacecraft was originally developed to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize, a failed attempt to incentivize private sector companies to send spacecraft to the lunar surface. Ispace kept at it, after the contest was disbanded without a winner.

Its spacecraft carries two small robots: a 22-pound rover developed by the United Arab Emirates, and a 3-inch mobile robot developed by the Japanese space agency and a Japanese toy company that is to take pictures while on the moon.

But getting to the moon is difficult. In 2019, an Israeli spacecraft crash-landed on the lunar surface. Later that year, an Indian spacecraft carrying a rover also failed to touch down safely. It’s a history ispace said it hopes to avoid.

“It’s not easy,” Hakamada said. “But it’s not impossible. It’s feasible. I have high confidence we will land successfully on the moon.”

The mission is being done independently of NASA as a test “to lay the groundwork for unleashing the moon’s potential and transforming it into a robust and vibrant economic system,” Hakamada said in a statement. He said the company hopes to partner with NASA in the future through its U.S. subsidiary.

One of the NASA missions would include sending a rover that would search for ice at the moon’s south pole. The 1,000-pound rover, dubbed VIPER, an acronym for “Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover,” was originally scheduled to land on the moon late next year but has been delayed to 2024, so that Astrobotic can do more tests on the spacecraft that would deliver it to the surface.

“NASA has tasked U.S. companies to perform a very challenging technological feat — to successfully land and operate on the moon,” Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, said in a statement over the summer. VIPER, he said, is the “largest and most sophisticated science payload to be delivered to the moon” through the delivery program.

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