SpaceX launches Japanese lunar lander and NASA lunar ice mapper

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off early Sunday from Cape Canaveral, launching a commercially developed Japanese lunar lander into space for a three-month journey until landing in a 54-mile-wide crater. Also on board: a small NASA orbiter that will search for ice deposits in cold, permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles.

Fittingly enough, the launch occurred on the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo moon landing in 1972 and just 10 hours before NASA’s Orion lunar ship went unmanned. dive into the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California to cap off a 25-day test flight.

Putting on a spectacular nighttime show, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soared into space early Sunday, sending a Japanese robotic lander and a small NASA orbiter on their way to the moon. The launch was on the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo moon landing in 1972. / Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

Orion’s Artemis 1 mission aims to pave the way for manned flights to the moon starting in 2024. Tokyo-based Ispace, builder of the Hakuto-R lunar lander, hopes to help pave the way for commercial operations on the moon, carrying small government and civilian payloads to the lunar surface.

The mission began at 2:38 am EST when Falcon 9’s first stage engines ignited with a ground-shaking roar and accelerated to 1.7 million pounds of thrust to begin a climb into space.

The first stage, making its fifth flight, propelled the 229-foot-tall rocket out of the lower atmosphere, then separated, spun, and returned to land at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Heralded by window-shaking sonic bursts, the slim booster descended on a brilliant jet of flame, deploying four landing legs a moment before settling into a perfect landing on a concrete pad. It was SpaceX’s 155th successful recovery, the 27th in Florida and the second in three days.

Hakuto-R, meanwhile, was released from the Falcon 9 second stage about 47 minutes after launch. It is expected to reach the moon in five months, using a low-energy trajectory that will carry it a million miles into space. The gravity of the Sun and the Earth, together with the periodic firings of the onboard thrusters, will then combine to return the craft to the moon.

Artist's impression of ispace's Hakuto-R 1-ton lunar lander on the surface of the moon.  As the partner companies' logos indicate, the spacecraft is the first privately developed lunar lander to go into space.  / Credit: ispace

Artist’s impression of ispace’s Hakuto-R 1-ton lunar lander on the surface of the moon. As the partner companies’ logos indicate, the spacecraft is the first privately developed lunar lander to go into space. / Credit: ispace

Hopefully, the spacecraft will descend to the floor of Atlas Crater in a rocket landing in late April, landing on four shock-absorbing legs.

Once on the surface, a small 22-pound rover known as Rashid, built by the United Arab Emirates, will roll down a ramp and onto the surface to study the region’s geology, soil properties, dust movement and the environment of the electrically charged plasma.

An even smaller pound rover about the size of a baseball, known as a Japanese Lunar Excursion Vehicle, will carry its own cameras to the surface for independent research.

Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, said the company’s goal is to help foster the development of a lunar economy and infrastructure by providing quick access to the moon’s surface, augmenting the NASA-led Artemis program .

“It is an honor to be the first (privately funded) launch and landing on the lunar surface,” Hakamada said in an interview with CBS News. “However, this is not our goal. Our goal is to create a sustainable ecosystem.

“We have to have at least several competitors in this market. Otherwise, there is no incentive to grow this industry. So I’m very happy to have other competitors… and grow this industry together with them.”

Artist's impression of NASA's Lunar Flashlight orbiter, equipped with infrared lasers to scan permanently shadowed craters for ice deposits that could provide an in situ source of air, water and fuel for future astronauts.  / Credit: NASA

Artist’s impression of NASA’s Lunar Flashlight orbiter, equipped with infrared lasers to scan permanently shadowed craters for ice deposits that could provide an in situ source of air, water and fuel for future astronauts. / Credit: NASA

Joining Hakuto-R aboard Falcon 9 was NASA’s Lunar Flashlight, a so-called “smallsat” equipped with four infrared lasers. Orbiting the moon in an enormously elliptical orbit that takes it as close as 43,000 miles from the surface to just nine miles at closest approach, the Lunar Flashlight will probe the lunar soil underneath for signs of ice.

Rock and soil will simply reflect and scatter the laser light, but ice will absorb it. NASA is particularly interested in probing permanently shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole, where previous satellite observations have detected chemical signatures that could indicate the presence of ice.

Ice could be a critical resource for future astronauts and is a central theme in NASA’s Artemis program. If accessible deposits are found, the ice could be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, allowing future explorers to produce rocket fuel, air and water on the moon, without the enormous expense of transporting the goods from Earth.

“We’re carrying a flashlight to the moon, shining lasers into these dark craters to look for definitive signs of water ice covering the top layer of lunar regolith,” said Barbara Cohen, the principal investigator, in a NASA release. “I’m excited to see our mission contribute to our scientific understanding of where water ice is located on the moon and how it got there.”

Hakuto-R is a technology demonstrator and does not have its own tools. But Hakamada said the ice is a key enabler for the eventual development of a commercial infrastructure on and around the moon.

“We believe it will be key to kick-starting the lunar economy,” he said. “To utilize those assets, we believe that in the near term we need high-frequency transport to the lunar surface to support science missions, exploration missions, and even technology demonstration missions.

“We are planning to offer frequent surface missions. After 2025, we plan to offer two to three missions per year.”

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