MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. — Against the backdrop of the marquee Artemis I mission, a space startup from Japan hopes to make its own lunar history by successfully placing the first privately-funded lander on the surface of the Moon.

What You Need To Know

  •  ispace developed its Series 1 lunar lander over a five-year period starting in 2017

  •  This first mission for ispace will bring several payloads to the Moon, including the United Arab Emirates' Rashid Rover

  •  ispace plans to launch three missions to the Moon between 2022 and 2025

  • The launch date for the M1 mission slipped following undisclosed issues with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket

  • RELATED coverage: Further inspections force SpaceX to call off launch of 2 lunar missions

The company, ispace, contracted SpaceX to launch its Mission 1 lunar lander, marking the beginning of its HAKUTO-R Moon program.  

Undisclosed issues with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket initially delayed the launch from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 before SpaceX issued a statement stating the they are “standing down” for an undetermined amount of time.

A spokesperson for ispace told Spectrum News 13 that there is a “lunar trajectory blackout period from December 2-6,” adding that a new launch date “will be determined based on launch vehicle readiness.”

The gravity of the moment isn’t lost on Takeshi Hakamada, the founder and CEO of ispace. He spoke with Spectrum News 13 on Monday in the leadup to the planned launch on Nov. 30.

He said there was much buzz among the more than 200 employees spanning offices in Japan, Luxembourg and the United States.

“I’m very excited for this moment and my team as well. It’s a very surreal moment opening the door for the new commercial industry in this area,” Hakamada said. “And we are very proud we are going to be the first to land on the Moon as a private company.”

This first mission for ispace comes at turning point for the space industry and the broader economy. The launch of the Artemis I mission just two weeks ago and the ongoing journey of the Orion spacecraft brought the Moon front and center in the zeitgeist in a way not seen since the Apollo era.

Five months ago, Rocket Lab launched NASA’s CAPSTONE mission to serve as a pathfinder for the future Lunar Gateway space station.

Given that the Artemis I mission could’ve potentially launched much earlier than now, Hakamada said it’s quite a stroke of serendipity that they’re able to run with the lunar momentum spurred by the Artemis program’s first flagship missions.

“We didn’t expect to be in the similar timeframe of the Artemis I program, however, we got lucky they launched before us and they created a big movement for lunar missions,” Hakamada said. “This is supportive for our commercial mission as well.”

ispace Mission 1

The launch of ispace’s Mission 1 (M1) lunar lander begins the first chapter of its HAKUTO-R lunar exploration program. It began in 2010 as one of five teams selected for Google’s Lunar XPRIZE competition.

In 2017, they raised $90.2 mission in Series A funding to begin developing their Series 1 lunar lander and chart a course toward future lunar missions.

“We created a team who could finish the development within five years,” Hakamada said. “So, I’m really proud of my team for completing the development with only five years.”

At its full height, the Series 1 Lunar Lander stands about 7.5-feet-tall and 8.5-feet-wide. It weighs about 340 kg empty, but fully fueled, it’s roughly 1,000 kg or the weight of a medium pontoon boat.

In order to pull off a successful landing, ispace partnered with several players, including Japan Airlines, which provided technical assistance and space for the assembly of the first two landers; Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, which created a coverage plan to mitigate the risk for those involved; Citizen Watch, which provided their patented Super Titanium TM and GPS receivers; and US-based Draper, which brought their Apollo-era insight to the table.

“They worked on the guidance and navigation controls system for the Apollo missions,” Hakamada said. “They are the only company who can avail support to the company, having the experience, real experience, of the lunar landing.”

Draper and ispace signed an Exclusive Long-Term Partnership deal for lunar mission back in 2018. It gives ispace exclusive rights to Draper’s guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software for small, commercial landers through 2026.

The target landing zone for this first mission is the Atlas Crater, which is located on the south-eastern edge of an area near the Moon’s north pole called “Mare Frigoris” (“Sea of Cold”).

Hakamada said that site was chosen for its safety and its ability to support one of the payloads on board, a rover from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) dubbed the “Rashid Rover.”

“This first mission is a technology demonstration. So, we selected a safe place to land on the Moon to increase the probability of a successful landing,” he said. “This area is a very flat area and there’s also a good altitude to survive the Moon landing. And there’s some scientific significance to support the UAE’s Rashid Rover mission.”

This won’t be a quick jaunt to the Moon, like we saw with the Artemis I mission. The M1 lander will take about five months after launch before it arrives on the lunar surface. Hakamada said they anticipate landing in April 2023.

Mission 1 is intended to operate for roughly 10 days following landing. The company stated that “surface operations will be limited to the local day duration, from local sunrise to local sunset” on the Moon.

Lunar cargo transport model

The Rashid Rover, which will mark the first lunar mission for the UAE, is one of eight payloads and data services being offered by the lander.

The lander for the M1 mission will also be carrying a transformable robot from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), NGK Spark Plug Co.’s test module of a solid state battery and multiple 360-degree cameras from Canadensys.

“It’s quite international and a combination of the government and the private payloads,” Hakamada said. “This is also the signal, opening the door for the future ecosystem, not only government, but also the private sector.”

Hakamada said one of the key points of this mission and the two that follow are to validate their business concept as a “frequent and reliable payload transportation to lunar orbit and surface, as well as data services to support and accelerate technology demonstrations, science projects and our customers’ next-generation business.”

SpaceX is contracted to launch the M1 and M2 missions with Series 1 landers in 2022 and 2024 respectively. A launch provider for the 2025 M3 mission with the Series 2 lander has not yet been named. ispace aims to launch two to three missions per year in the future “to achieve our vision of a robust cislunar economy.”

“We believe that this frequency of missions is important to support technology demonstrations on the lunar surface and also to make a better prospect for our customers to plan their development in the long run,” Hakamada said.

One of the proof-of-concept moments will also be done in coordination with NASA. In 2020, both ispace and ispace EU received two out of four contracts awarded concerning the collection of lunar regolith (dust).

As part of the first contract, the M1 lander will collect and provide imagery and location data of its sample and then conduct an “in-place” transfer of ownership to NASA, marking the first such transaction on the Moon.

“This is historically a very important activity because the utilization of these space resources is going to be the key to establish a sustainable economy in space in the future,” Hakamada said.

“There’s a lot of controversial discussions on how to deal with the space resources legal framework. This is our proof-of-concept activities, what kind of things we need to solve in the future to make it happen in large scale in the future.”

He said creating that pathway for dealing with the resources of the Moon will be pivotal for not only the Artemis program, but for the larger cis-lunar economy as a whole.

The Moon is the place to be

While the Artemis I and CAPSTONE missions placed a spotlight on the Moon recently, relatively few missions have gone there in the past few decades. Following Apollo 17 in 1972, there have been fewer than 30 lunar missions and only a small group of countries have done so successfully.

There were no missions in the 1980s. Since the start of the 1990s, the European Space Agency (ESA), the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, India and Israel have sent spacecraft to the Moon.

In the history of lunar exploration, only the U.S.S.R., the U.S. and China have successfully put landers on the Moon.

The 2019 launch of the Beresheet1mission from SpaceIL and the Israeli Space Agency hoped to mark the first soft lunar landing by a private company, but it was unsuccessful in landing safely. About a year-and-a-half later, SpaceIL announced it would try again in 2024.

This year kickstarted the 2020s for Moon missions. Three big ones are seeing success so far in their lunar endeavors.

NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat launched from New Zealand on board a Rocket Lab Electron rocket on June 28. NASA confirmed that it entered its near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) on November 13, blazing a path for the upcoming Gateway space station.

The first lunar mission for the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), Korea Pathfinding Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) launched in early August from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and is expected to enter its lunar orbit on December 16.

And the NASA-led Artemis I continues to ace its demonstration mission, which launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16 using NASA long-awaited Space Launch System rocket.

On Thursday afternoon, NASA and ESA confirmed that the Orion spacecraft fired its main engine for 105 seconds, which put it on a path to exit its distant retrograde orbit around the Moon.

This sets Orion up for one last powered flyby past the Moon on December 5, which will take it just 79 miles above the surface, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11 to conclude the Artemis I mission.

The next two years will offer some giant leaps in lunar exploration from both the private and the public sectors. These are some of the Moon-based missions that hope to launch in the near couple of years:

Hakamada, a graduate of Georgia Tech, said he and ispace do talk with some of the other players in the commercial lunar space, especially Astrobotic, since they also participated in the Google Lunar XPRIZE program, which lasted from 2007 through 2018.

He said for the cis-lunar economy to really thrive, it requires competition for transportation to and services on the Moon.

“My philosophy is in order to create an ecosystem, or a viable economy in space, I don’t think only one company exists in this market. Several players need to exist and then play together otherwise, there’s no incentive for the growth of the industry,” Hakamada said.

And as for being on the cusp of becoming the first commercial company in history to successfully put a lander on the Moon, he said he’s confident in the mission ahead.

“It’s exciting, of course, and I don’t have real concern or anxiety,” Hakamada said. “My team, they’ve done everything, and they think they’re right. So, I have very high confidence on our first mission.”

The Moon is the new hot ticket in town, once again.