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SpaceX delays launch of private moon lander, NASA ice surveyor

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 11/29/2022 Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel

SpaceX announced Wednesday it was delaying a launch to send a couple of moonbound customers into space from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The Falcon 9 rocket is carrying private Japanese company ispace’s HAKUTO-R Mission 1 lunar lander, the first of a planned series of landers that if successful will make it the first commercial soft landing ever on the moon. Also on board is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s briefcase-sized Lunar Flashlight, that plans to map ice in the permanently shadowed spaces near the moon’s south pole.

SpaceX opted for the delay after inspecting the rocket on the pad. A new target launch date will be announced at a later date.

The HAKUTO-R series lander is small, less than 8 feet tall weighing around 750 pounds at landing including space for about 66 pounds of customer cargo. It’s taking the long way around to the moon after launch using the gravity of Earth and the sun for an assist before a planned touchdown five months after launch in April 2023, an effort to trade off costly fuel for payload space.

Among its customers hitching a ride is a small rover for the United Arab Emirates and a two-wheeled robot for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Upon landing, assuming other more direct flights don’t make it to the moon first, it would become the first commercial company and the first Japanese spacecraft to land on the moon. The UAE would also be making its first visit with the rover named Rashid that features high-resolution and thermal cameras as well as a probe to study why moondust is sticky.

The venture by ispace was born out of a previous iteration of the company that was one of five finalists for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, which ended up not being awarded since no company managed the successful privately funded landing on the lunar surface by the 2018 deadline.

One of those competitors, though, followed through with its attempt and came close in 2019. That’s when the Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL attempted to land its Beresheet probe on the moon, but it ended up crashing when its main engine failed.

The HAKUTO-R Mission 1 lander looks to avoid a similar fate, and ispace has two more lunar landing missions already in the works.

“We have achieved so much in the six short years since we first began conceptualizing this project in 2016,” said company CEO Takeshi Hakamada in a press release.

To date, only the U.S., Russia and China have made successful soft landings while Japan, India and the European Space Agency have crash-landed probes on the moon.

The U.S. is the only country to send humans to the moon with 12 men walking on its surface during the Apollo missions between 1969-1972. The U.S. is looking to return humans to the moon as part of the Artemis program. Artemis I is halfway through its uncrewed orbital mission to the moon now with a crewed orbital Artemis II flight planned no earlier than May 2024 and a potential crewed return to the moon’s surface on Artemis III no earlier than 2025.

Central to the Artemis program is NASA’s hunt for lunar ice on the south pole, which is where Artemis III looks to land. Lunar ice could potentially be converted into both oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel, which could support both a sustained lunar presence and exploration beyond to Mars and elsewhere.

Ahead of that mission, NASA’s Lunar Flashlight looks to use near-infrared lasers and an onboard spectrometer for a better look at the potential landing sites near the shadowed craters and other areas of the moon that could have water ice deposits.

Artemis-related missions are also in the future for ispace, which is working with U.S.-based company Draper for its future landing missions as part of a contract through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. It also has contracts with NASA to collect lunar regolith as part of other HAKUTO-R missions.

The company’s mission statement is to build out a lunar colony with 1,000 residents by 2040 called Moon Valley, its effort to “develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily lives on Earth, as well as expand our living sphere into space.”

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