Japan’s ispace moves ahead with commercial lunar exploration project

ispace, the Tokyo-based lunar exploration company, is currently working on the world’s first multinational commercial lunar exploration programme.

Named ‘Hakuto-R’, the programme currently consists of two lunar missions, named Mission 1 and Mission 2 respectively.

ispace aims to tap new business opportunities on the Moon through a variety of private and public sector customers from all over the world.

2022 mission

Scheduled for launch in 2022, Mission 1 (lunar landing) – ispace’s first mission – will feature the soft landing of a lander on the Moon.

This will also represent the first privately-led Japanese mission to land on the lunar surface.

In 2023, Mission 2 (lunar surface exploration) – ispace’s second mission – will involve the soft landing of a lander spacecraft and deployment of a rover for surface exploration and data collection on the Moon.

The rover is the smallest and lightest planetary rover in the world, according to ispace.

ispace’s small and lightweight rover is equipped with four wheels, mobility to traverse difficult terrain, 360° high-definition video and photo capabilities, the ability to conduct detailed terrain mapping, and capacity to carry customer payloads on the lunar surface.

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The rover is the smallest and lightest planetary rover in the world. Credit: ispace

The rover will continuously undergo advancements in AI and swarm robotic functions in order to communicate with other rovers and map and collect data about lunar resources.

Eventually, the rovers will be instrumental in extracting lunar resources.

SpaceX launch

The lander and rover are due to launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for both missions in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

In 2023 Mission 3 and subsequent ispace lunar landing missions will seek to meet the needs of a variety of customers’ missions, with advancements being made in precision landing, communication speed, increased payload capacity, and the ability to withstand temperatures in the polar regions.

ispace resulted from the Google Lunar XPrize competition, where ispace managed Team Hakuto, one of the five finalists in the competition.

The Google Lunar XPrize was a 2007–2018 inducement prize space competition organised by the X Prize Foundation, and sponsored by Google.

The competition aimed to spur affordable access to the Moon and give space entrepreneurs a legitimate platform to develop long-term business models around lunar transportation and to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, space explores and adventurers to enter the STEM fields.

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Engineers work on the structure thermal model of the Mission 1 lander. Credit: ispace

For its lunar missions’ programme ispace is designing a small, unmanned commercial lander for low-cost, high-frequency transportation to the Moon.

By reducing the mass of the lander itself, ispace will be able to ride as a secondary payload on a launch vehicle from Earth, thereby dramatically decreasing launch costs.

With the capacity to carry instruments and other supplies ispace’s small commercial lunar lander will deliver global customers’ payloads to the Moon.

Regolith collection

In December 2020, NASA awarded two contracts to both ispace and the company’s subsidiary, ispace Europe, to acquire regolith from the lunar surface for purchase by the American space agency.

The first contract, awarded to ispace, will collect regolith with the company’s lunar lander, during Mission 1 to the Moon in 2022.

The second contract, awarded to ispace EU, will use ispace’s rover to collect regolith during the company’s Mission 2 to the lunar surface in 2023.

These two NASA-awarded contracts are set to be the first-ever commercial transaction for the collection of lunar resources, as well as the first transaction for space resources to take place off-world.

Takeshi Hakamada, Founder & CEO, ispace, said: “We are pleased to receive these two awards from NASA for what will be a historic moment for humankind.

“For ispace, this collaboration with NASA in two regions where we operate shows the positive momentum for our development as an internationally operating company.

“For the space industry, as well as the potential for all industries on Earth, this marks the beginning of a cislunar economy where economic value can be created on the Moon, apart from Earth – but for the benefit of Earth’s economy.”

Global foray

Founded in 2010, ispace has offices in Japan, Europe and the United States.

The company has raised a cumulative total investment of approximately US$125 million.

The funding is being used to build Mission 2’s small commercial lunar lander, which aims to provide a high-frequency, low-cost delivery service to the Moon.

ispace has also launched a lunar data business concept to support companies with lunar market entry.

Corporate partners of the Hakuto-R multinational commercial lunar exploration programme include Japan Airlines, Suzuki Motors, Citizen Watch, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, NGK Spark Plug, Takasago Thermal Engineering, and Sumitomo Corporation.