Florida: A Tokyo company aimed for the moon Sunday with its own private lander blasting off atop a SpaceX rocket with the United Arab Emirates’ first lunar rover and a toylike robot from Japan that’s designed to roll around up there in the gray dust.
It will take nearly five months for the lander and its experiments to reach the moon.
The ispace lander will aim for Atlas crater in the northeastern section of the moon’s near side.Credit:AP
The company ispace designed its craft to use minimal fuel, to save money and leave more room for cargo. So it’s taking a slow, low-energy path to the moon, flying 1 million km from Earth before looping back and intersecting with the moon by the end of April.
By contrast, NASA’s Orion crew capsule with test dummies took five days to reach the moon last month. The lunar flyby mission ends Monday Australian time with a Pacific splashdown.
The ispace lander will aim for Atlas crater in the northeastern section of the moon’s near side, more than 87 kms across and just over 2 kms deep. With its four legs extended, the lander is 2.3 metres tall.
With a science satellite already around Mars, the UAE wants to explore the moon, too. Its rover, named Rashid after Dubai’s royal family, weighs just 10 kilograms and will operate on the surface for about 10 days, like everything else on the mission.
In addition, the lander is carrying an orange-sized sphere from the Japanese Space Agency that will transform into a wheeled robot on the moon. Also flying: a solid-state battery from a Japanese-based spark plug company; an Ottawa, Ontario, company’s flight computer with artificial intelligence for identifying geologic features seen by the UAE rover; and 360-degree cameras from a Toronto-area company.
Hitching a ride on the rocket is a small NASA laser experiment that will fly to the moon on its own to hunt for ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar south pole.
The ispace mission is called Hakuto, Japanese for white rabbit. In Asian folklore, a white rabbit is said to live on the moon. A second lunar landing by the private company is planned for 2024 and a third in 2025.
With Sunday’s predawn launch from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, ispace is now on its way to becoming one of the first private entities to attempt a moon landing. Although not launching until early next year, lunar landers built by Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology and Houston’s Intuitive Machines may beat ispace to the moon thanks to shorter cruise times.
Only Russia, the U.S. and China have achieved so-called “soft landings” on the moon, beginning with the former Soviet Union’s Luna 9 in 1966. And only the U.S. has put astronauts on the lunar surface: 12 men over six landings.
Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of astronauts’ last lunar landing, by Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on Dec. 11, 1972.
NASA’s Apollo moonshots were all “about the excitement of the technology,” said ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada, who wasn’t alive then. Now, “it’s the excitement of the business.”
Liftoff should have occurred two weeks ago, but was delayed by SpaceX for extra rocket checks.
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