It is not a device designed by the company Elon Musk, but by the Japanese company ispace.
On Thursday, December 1, SpaceX will carry out a major launch. A Falcon 9 launch vehicle will take off from the US Space Force base at Cape Canaveral with a rather special cargo on board: a lander intended to be the first Japanese vehicle, but also and above all the first private vehicle to land on our satellite.
It will therefore be an event of great importance. Because if this moon landing goes as planned, Japan will join a very closed circle. So far only three countries have already achieved this technical feat. Russia (or rather the Soviet Union) got the ball rolling in 1966. It was then joined by the United States in 1969. Since the two historic aerospace giants slowed down, very few countries have had the ambition to emulate them. It took more than 40 years to see a third nation – China – land on the Moon.
But this Japanese mission, the first of a major program called Hakuto-R, has a very important difference. Until now, all the vehicles that have landed on our satellite have been built within the framework of institutional programs led by national space agencies. This mission, on the other hand, is carried out by ispace, a private Japanese company.
The world’s first private lands
The latter came to the fore thanks to the international Google Lunar XPrize program. This was a competition in which the participants all sought to launch the first private lander by 2018. None of the entered companies achieved this goal; but at least the program has had the benefit of sowing the seeds for some promising missions.
We can cite the Israeli company SpaceIL, another finalist in the Lunar XPrize. It developed the Beresheet lander. It looked great, but unfortunately crashed into our satellite in 2019 after missing a braking maneuver.
From now on, it is the Japanese who are best placed to grill their courtesy with their little 2 x 2.5 meter machine. And if ispace achieves its goal, it can claim the first ever private moon landing in the history of space travel. And this barely six years after the start of its activity; quite an impressive timeframe in an area as complex as space travel and with relatively limited funds.
Note that SpaceX is also building a lander: it’s the Human Landing System, a vehicle based on the famous Starship. Technically, it is actually a machine designed by a private company. But the mission still fits into an institutional framework. As a reminder, the vehicle is being developed on behalf of NASA following a tender that Elon Musk’s company won after a bitter legal battle against Blue Origin (see our article). HLS is therefore not really a private machine. And in any case, he will not travel to the Moon until 2025 at the earliest. SpaceX is therefore already out of the running for the title “first private lands“.
The United Arab Emirates’ first lunar mission
And in that case, it would also be a huge success for another more low-key country in the space race. Because on board the vehicle that will land on the Moon, we find Rashid, a small rover of about ten kilograms designed by the United Arab Emirates.
Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s country is relatively new in this area. But it can already boast some major successes, starting with a Mars probe launched in 2020. If the mission goes smoothly, it will be the oil superpower’s first lunar mission.
The ispace vehicle was originally scheduled to leave today. But shortly before the launch, SpaceX announced a slight delay on Twitter.
Stand down from the launch of ispace’s HAKUTO-R Mission 1 to allow for additional pre-flight checkouts; now targeted on Thursday 1 December at 3:37 a.m. ET to start
—SpaceX (@SpaceX) 30 November 2022
Apparently the company wants to run an extra battery of tests before launch. the deadline has therefore been postponed by one day; takeoff is now scheduled for Thursday 1 December at 9:37 French time. It will be possible to follow the launch live on the SpaceX YouTube channel.
But to know if the lander will succeed in landing or if it will meet the same disastrous fate as Beresheet, we will have to wait a little longer. The moon landing itself is planned for next April. So we look forward to seeing you tomorrow for the launch and then in the spring to participate in the final phase of this important mission for Japanese space travel.