Japanese commercial lunar, UAE rover ready for launch on SpaceX rocket – Spaceflight Now
EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 23:15 EST November 29 (04:15 GMT November 30) with SpaceX’s announcement of a 24-hour launch delay.
A commercial lunar rover developed by Japan’s ispace is awaiting a pre-dawn launch from Cape Canaveral on Thursday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will send it on a five-month trajectory culminating in an attempt to land on the moon next year, an achievement that could make space the first private company who accomplished that feat.
The one-ton robotic Hakuto-R lander is set to lift off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3:37 a.m. EST (08:37 GMT) on Thursday. SpaceX canceled the launch attempt early Wednesday to allow time for “additional pre-flight checkouts.”
A Falcon 9 rocket will send the spacecraft on a course that will take it a million miles from Earth, far beyond the Moon, on a long but economical trip before slipping into lunar orbit next April.
Once in lunar orbit, iSpace’s lander will fire its main engine to autonomously descend to the lunar surface, targeting a landing in the northern hemisphere on the near side of the moon.
The lunar landing mission is the culmination of 12 years of engineering development and fundraising, an effort that has included starts, stops and major changes in scope.
The Google Lunar X Prize, a sweepstakes that offered a grand prize of $20 million to the first privately funded team to place a lander on the moon, was the original impetus for Takeshi Hakamada to found the company that eventually became Space. Hakamada’s group, called Hakuto, worked to design a lunar rover to drive to the moon on a second lander. But the Google Lunar X Prize closed in 2018 without a winner, causing some teams to disband or struggle to find a new purpose.
Hakamada has refocused ispace’s efforts to design and develop its own lunar lander, a reboot the firm calls Hakuto-R. Hakuto means “white rabbit” in Japanese.
“Since then, our mission has shifted from just the Lunar X Prize to a broader transportation business,” Hakamada said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “Our goal is to launch our first mission on November 30. This will be the first private mission to land on the moon, and we will bring the burden from the government side as well as the private sector. This will open the door to future commercial cislunar industries.”
As of July, the company has secured $237 million in equity and bank loans to pay for the Hakuto-R lunar transport program, although ispace did not disclose the cost of the mission, which launched this week. The company says it “specializes in the design and construction of lunar landers and rovers.”
ispace’s goal is to “extend the sphere of human life into space and create a sustainable world by providing high-frequency, low-cost transportation services to the moon,” according to the company’s website.
The first Hakuto-R lander, which ispace calls Mission 1, will carry about 24 pounds (11 kilograms) of customer cargo to the lunar surface, according to Hakamada. By far the largest payload is a rover from the United Arab Emirates developed by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center. Although the rover occupies most of the payload capacity of the Hakuto-R lander, it is still small in stature, measuring just 21 by 21 inches (53 by 53 centimeters).
The lander also tows an even smaller mobile robot developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Japanese toy company Tomy. The so-called transformable lunar robot weighs just half a pound (250 grams) and is about 3 inches (80 millimeters) wide before it sets off tiny wheels to roll across the surface of the moon and collect data and images to help design a future pressurized rover for transporting astronauts to the moon.
A payload from NGK Spark Plug, another Japanese company, will test the performance of solid-state batteries. The Hakuto-R lander also has payloads from three Canadian companies: wide-angle cameras from Canadensys, an artificial intelligence flight computer from Mission Control Space Services, and a demonstration of NGC Aerospace’s crater-based autonomous navigation system.
First, ispace’s lander must reach the moon. Government missions from the United States, the Soviet Union and China have landed on the moon, but ispace uses a commercial business model.
“Our mission is privately funded,” Hakamada said. “However, we have some relationships with governments, such as our cargo from the UAE Space Agency and MBRSC, and we also have JAXA cargo. But even these payloads are commercial contracts, with no research and development funding from the government, so they are completely different from past engagements with the government.”
Hakamada’s investors include Suzuki, Japan Airlines, the Development Bank of Japan, Konica Minolta, Dentsu and numerous venture capital and equity funds.
Fundraising enabled ispace to purchase parts for its Hakuto-R lander from suppliers around the world. The hydrazine propulsion system comes from ArianeGroup, which also helped ispace perform final assembly of the lander in Germany. Draper, a Massachusetts-based company, provides guidance, navigation and control software for the landing, a similar role Draper played in NASA’s Apollo missions. The solar panels were supplied by Sierra Space.
“As our first mission, my strategy was to accelerate our speed to market,” Hakamada said. “To do this, we recognized that becoming a systems integrator was key to accelerating the speed of development. If we develop each of the components, it takes time. There is technology for that, and the important thing is how to integrate the technology into one system with enough resources.”
The first Hakuto-R lander, which ispace calls the Series 1 design, weighs about 2,200 pounds (1 metric ton) with full launch fuel. About two-thirds of its launch mass is hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants to power the lander’s engines. With its legs extended, the lander is 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) wide and 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) wide.
After departing from Cape Canaveral, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will head east across the Atlantic Ocean and close its first booster stage less than two and a half minutes into the flight. The reusable first stage, flying for the fourth time, will return to Cape Canaveral for a propulsive landing.
Falcon 9’s second stage will fire twice to send the Hakuto-R lander on a high-speed trajectory to take it away from Earth. Separation of the lander from the Falcon 9 upper stage is scheduled for 46 minutes into the mission. This will be followed by the activation of the spacecraft’s systems and the extension of its four landing legs.
NASA’s 31-pound (14-kilogram) hitchhiker, called the Lunar Lantern, will deploy from Falcon 9 nearly 53 minutes after launch. The Lunar Lantern is operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and will fly itself into a halo orbit around the Moon. Its mission will test a laser system that will shine into the eternally dark craters near the moon’s poles. The spacecraft will measure the light reflected from the moon’s surface, revealing the composition and amount of water ice and other molecules hidden on the dark crater floors.
With a series of course correction maneuvers, the ispace lander will follow a similar but independent path to its destination. It will reach a maximum distance of a million miles, or 1.5 million kilometers, away from Earth before gravity pulls it back toward the Moon. The Hakuto-R lander will fire thrusters that will be captured into lunar orbit and then set up for final descent to the surface in late April.
“We call it a low-energy orbit because we can reduce propellant consumption by using this orbit, with the help of the sun’s gravity,” Hakamada said. “In order to reduce launch mass and reduce launch costs, we chose this orbit. But this orbit is similar to several recent missions that use a similar trajectory, such as NASA’s CAPSTONE mission or the Korean Lunar Orbiter. So we don’t think there’s much risk in this orbit.”
The target landing site is Atlas Crater, located in a region on the near side of the Moon called the Mare Frigoris, or Cold Sea. Engineers at the Mission Operations Center in Tokyo will oversee the Hakuto-R flight to the Moon.
Ryo Ujiie, ispace’s chief technology officer, said the company has identified 10 major milestones for its first moon landing mission. The first milestone has already been reached with the completion of preparations for the launch. This will be followed by the launch and deployment of the Hakuto-R spacecraft, the establishment of stable operations, and the first orbit control maneuver within a day or two of liftoff.
Other milestones included completing a month of deep space operations, performing additional course corrections, entering lunar orbit, adjusting to the landing site, and landing itself. The ultimate goal will be the completion of payload operations on the lunar surface.
Assuming a successful landing, the spacecraft is designed to operate for about 10 days after landing. long enough to deploy a lander in the UAE and JAXA’s mobile robot. The stationary lander will transmit communication signals from the deployable payload back to Earth. The mission will end when the sun sets on the landing site to begin a two-week lunar night.
In addition to the payload placed on the lander, ispace aims to fulfill its contract with NASA with the first Hakuto-R mission. In 2020, NASA awarded contracts to buy lunar regolith from commercial companies, including a $5,000 contract for ispace. All contracts were of relatively low monetary value.
The initiative is part of NASA’s Artemis Moon program. NASA wants to eventually contract with commercial companies to procure resources, such as minerals and water, that could sustain a future lunar base. Transferring ownership of the lunar soil from a private company to NASA will help officials on both sides of the transaction resolve legal and regulatory issues.
“It’s just a conceptual transfer of ownership,” Hakamada said. Dust particles kicked up by the landing engine are expected to settle at the base of the lander’s legs.
“The regolith will come in and cover the pad, and we declare the capture of the lunar regolith, and then we transfer ownership of the regolith on this pad. We’re not moving this regolith anywhere else, we don’t expect that for this first mission.”
Hakamada said that ispace has another contract to sell lunar regolith to NASA in the next lunar landing mission, which is scheduled for 2024. In that mission, ispace may try to take some soil from the lunar surface.
While the first Hakuto-R Series 1 lander is purely a commercial mission, ispace is working with Draper and other space companies to develop a larger robotic lunar lander to transport up to half a ton of cargo to the moon for NASA. Draper and ispace were awarded a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, contract earlier this year to deliver multiple NASA science instruments to the lunar surface in 2025.
NASA’s first two CLPS missions will be flown by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines. Both companies plan to launch their first private spacecraft to the moon next year.
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