Science

SpaceX’s Next Launch Is a Japanese Company’s Moon Lander


Another day, another rocket launch by SpaceX, and another spacecraft going to the moon. All those seem commonplace these days.

SpaceX has already launched its Falcon 9 rocket more than 50 times this year. NASA’s Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight that is a precursor to future astronaut missions, is nearing its return to Earth after orbiting the moon,. CAPSTONE, a small NASA-sponsored CubeSat is still orbiting the moon after being launched in June. A robotic South Korean orbiter, Danuri, was launched to the moon in August.

But the lunar lander on top of the Falcon 9 rocket on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Fla., is not a NASA mission. Instead, known as M1, it is from a small Japanese company, Ispace. The payloads on M1 include a rover from the United Arab Emirates and a small two-wheeled Transformers-like robot for the Japanese space agency. If the launch goes off as planned on Sunday morning, you’ll have to wait until April to see if these robotic explorers make it, possibly becoming the first cargo successfully carried to the lunar surface by a private company.

You’ll have to get up early on Sunday to see it: The launch is scheduled for 2:38 a.m. Eastern time (SpaceX postponed the launch earlier this month to complete additional checks of the rocket). SpaceX will start streaming coverage about 15 minutes before liftoff. Or you can watch it in the video player embedded above.

The group known as Team Hakuto evolved into Ispace, attracting sizable investment, and the company plans to launch a series of commercial moon landers in the coming years.

For Sunday’s mission, the payloads include the Rashid lunar rover from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai; a two-wheeled “transformable lunar robot” from JAXA, the Japanese space agency; a test module for a solid-state battery from NGK Spark Plug Company; an artificial intelligence flight computer; and 360-degree cameras from Canadensys Aerospace.

As a vestige of its Lunar X Prize heritage, it is also carrying a panel engraved with the names of people who provided crowdfunding support and a music disc with a song performed by the Japanese rock band Sakanaction.

The Japanese company’s lander is not the only passenger on the flight. A secondary payload on the Falcon 9 is a small NASA mission, Lunar Flashlight, which is to enter an elliptical orbit around the moon and use an infrared laser to probe the deep, dark craters at the moon’s polar regions.

Much like some other recent moon missions, M1 is taking a circuitous, energy-efficient trip to the moon and will not land, in the Atlas Crater in the Northern Hemisphere of the moon, until late April. The fuel-efficient trajectory allows the mission to pack in more payload and carry less fuel.

As part of the Artemis I mission, NASA’s Orion spacecraft traveled to, then orbited, the moon. It will return to Earth later on Sunday, with a splashdown into the Pacific Ocean.

A small NASA-financed mission called CAPSTONE also arrived recently to explore an orbit in which NASA plans to build a lunar outpost where astronauts will stop on the way to the moon.



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