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Japan’s ispace launches historic first commercial lunar lander

The privately funded rover carried by the SpaceX rocket aims to land in Atlas crater in April.

A Japanese space company has launched its own private lander to the moon aboard a SpaceX rocket, marking a significant step toward what would be a historic first for both the nation and a private company.

Tokyo-based ispace Inc’s HAKUTO-R mission lifted off without incident from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday after two postponements caused by inspections of its SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The company designed its vessel to use a minimum of fuel to save money and allow more space for cargo.

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It is taking a slow, low-energy path to the Moon, flying 1.6 million kilometers (one million miles) from Earth before returning and making a planned landing in late April.

By contrast, NASA’s Orion crew capsule with test dummies took five days to reach the Moon last month. The lunar flyby mission is expected to end Sunday with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Pointing to the Atlas crater

The ispace spacecraft aims to put a small NASA satellite into lunar orbit to search for water deposits before landing in Atlas crater, which is located in the northeastern section of the near side of the Moon and measures more than 87 km (54 miles) wide and a little over 2 km (1.2 miles) deep.

The M1 lander will deploy two robotic rovers, an orange-sized two-wheeled device from Japan’s JAXA space agency and a United Arab Emirates-made four-wheeled unit known as Explorer Rashid, after the patriarch of the royal family of Dubai.

It will also carry an experimental solid-state battery made by NGK Spark Plug Co, a Japan-based spark plug company.

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The national space agencies of the United States, Russia and China have all made soft landings on Earth’s nearest neighbor in the past half century, but Japan has not, nor does it have private companies.

The success of the mission would also represent a milestone in US-Japan space cooperation at a time when China is becoming increasingly competitive and Russian rocket travel is no longer available in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The company expects the HAKUTO-R project, named after the white rabbit that Japanese folklore suggests lives on the Moon, to be the first of many government and commercial cargo deliveries.

It has a contract with NASA to transport payloads to the Moon starting in 2025 and aims to build a permanently staffed lunar colony by 2040.

The ispace lander will point to the Atlas crater in the northeastern section of the Moon’s near side. [File: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters]

‘Dawn of the Lunar Economy’

Sunday also marked the 50th anniversary of the last lunar landing of Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on December 11, 1972.

Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, said NASA’s Apollo moon trips were all about “the excitement of technology.”

Now, he noted on the SpaceX launch webcast, “it’s the excitement of the business.”

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“This is the dawn of the lunar economy… Let’s go to the Moon,” Hakamada said.

Liftoff had originally been scheduled for two weeks ago, but SpaceX pushed it back to perform additional rocket checks.

Eight minutes after launch, the recycled propellant from the first stage touched down at Cape Canaveral under a nearly full Moon, double sonic booms echoing through the night.

Founded in 2010, ispace was among the finalists in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition that called for a successful landing on the Moon by 2018. The ispace-built lunar rover was never launched.

Another finalist, an Israeli nonprofit organization called SpaceIL, managed to reach the Moon in 2019. But instead of landing softly, the Beresheet spacecraft crashed into the Moon and was destroyed.

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