Japanese company joins March Back to the Moon in 2022

A Japanese company is moving forward with plans to launch a private lunar lander by the end of 2022, a year filled with other ambitions and lunar rehearsals that could predict how long humans will return to the lunar surface.

If plans hold, Tokyo-based ispace would make the first untouched Japanese spacecraft landing on the moon. And by the time it arrives, it could find other new visitors who have already started exploring lunar regolith this year from Russia and the United States. (Yutu-2, a Chinese rover, is currently the only robotic mission to the moon.)

Other missions in 2022 plan to orbit the Moon, in particular NASA’s Artemis-1 mission, a crucial uncrewed test of US hardware that is to return astronauts to the Moon. South Korea could also launch its first lunar orbiter later this year.

But other countries hoping to land on the moon in 2022 have fallen behind schedule. India was planning to make its second robotic moon landing attempt this year. But its Chandrayaan-3 mission was pushed back to mid-2023, says K. Sivan, who this month ended his term as president of the country’s space agency. Russia, on the other hand, remains convinced that its The 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 as planned in April, M1 will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

“As of today, the specific launch date should be, at the earliest, the end of 2022,” Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive 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 for the Google Lunar X Prize — a contest that ended in 2018 without any winners of a $20 million prize meant to boost private lunar missions. Although it did not win the Google award, the company raised over $90 million in 2017 and sees a healthy business in the future transporting payloads to the surface of the moon for governments, research institutes and private companies.

Its ambitious schedule calls for more than 10 moon landings in the coming years, amid a rush of space companies planning to mine the moon with robots for valuable resources like iron and silicon that could be returned to Earth or used to enlarge structures on the lunar surface.

Customers of ispace’s first moon landing include Japan’s JAXA space agency, which aims to test a small rover capable of changing shape for different terrains, and the United Arab Emirates’ space program, which is sending its first lunar rover, a four -wheeled robot called Rashid.

Nations and private companies have set their sights on the moon in recent years for its potential to serve as a staging ground for spacecraft and other technology that could be used for future missions to Mars. The Artemis program relies heavily on private companies to reduce the cost of access to the moon and, it hopes, stimulate a commercial market for various lunar services.

Although 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” designed to move on the surface and study the lunar terrain. This mission has been postponed to 2024 from 2023 due to technical schedule changes and to accommodate customer timelines, said ispace CTO Hideki Shimomura.

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. The two companies are building their spacecraft with support from Commercial Lunar Payload Services, a NASA program that aims to help fund the development of private landers capable of sending research instruments to the lunar surface.

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