CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – A Tokyo company aimed for the moon with its private lander Sunday, taking off on a SpaceX rocket with the UAE’s first lunar rover and a toy-like robot from Japan designed to roll up there in the gray dust.
It will take nearly five months for the lander and its experiments to reach the moon.
The ispace company designed its vessel to use minimal fuel, to save money and leave more room for cargo. It’s then taking a slow, low-energy path to the moon, flying 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth before looping back and intersecting with the moon by the end of April.
In contrast, NASA’s Orion crew capsule with test dummies took five days to reach the moon last month. The lunar flyby mission ends on Sunday with a splashdown in the Pacific.
The iSpace lander will target Atlas crater on the northeastern section of the near side of the moon, more than 50 miles (87 kilometers) in diameter and just over 1 mile (2 kilometers) deep. With its four legs extended, the lander is over 2.3 meters tall.
With a scientific satellite already around Mars, the UAE wants to explore the moon as well. Its rover, named Rashid after the Dubai royal family, weighs just 22 pounds (10 kilograms) and will operate on the surface for around 10 days, like everything else on the mission.
Additionally, the lander carries a Japan Space Agency-sized orange sphere that will transform into a wheeled robot on the moon. Also flyby: a solid-state battery from a Japanese spark plug company; a corporate flight computer in Ottawa, Ontario, with artificial intelligence to identify geological features seen by the UAE rover; and 360-degree cameras from a Toronto-area business.
Taking a rocket ride is a small laser experiment from NASA that will fly to the moon on its own to search for ice in the permanently shaded craters of the lunar south pole.
The space mission is called Hakuto, white rabbit in Japanese. In Asian folklore, a white rabbit is said to live on the moon. A second moon landing by the private company is planned for 2024 and a third in 2025.
Founded in 2010, ispace was among the finalists in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition which called for a successful moon landing by 2018. The ispace-built lunar rover was never launched.
Another finalist, an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL, made it to the moon in 2019. But instead of landing softly, the Beresheet spacecraft crashed into the moon and was destroyed.
Launching before dawn Sunday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, ispace is on track to become one of the first private entities to attempt a moon landing. Though they won’t launch until early next year, lunar landers built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines of Houston could beat space on the moon thanks to shorter cruise times.
Only Russia, the United States and China have made so-called “soft landings” on the moon, beginning with the former Soviet Union’s Luna 9 in 1966. And only the United States has put astronauts on the lunar surface: 12 men on six landings.
Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the last lunar landing by astronauts, by Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on December 11, 1972.
NASA’s Apollo moon shots were all about “the excitement of technology,” said ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada, who wasn’t alive at the time. Now, “it’s the excitement of the business.”
The liftoff was supposed to take place two weeks ago, but was delayed by SpaceX for more rocket checks.
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