Japanese lunar exploration company ispace raises $90 million

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NEW ORLEANS — A Japanese company planning a series of robotic missions to the moon announced Dec. 13 that it has raised more than $90 million in one of the largest Series A funding rounds for any emerging space venture.

Tokyo-based ispace said the $90.2 million round, featuring a consortium of Japanese funds and companies, will be used to develop a pair of missions launching by the end of 2020 to orbit and land on the moon, precursors for a more regular series of lunar lander missions in following years.

In an interview, Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive of ispace, said it raised such a large round in order to ensure it had enough funding to carry out those demonstration missions.

“We wanted to make sure that our financing for the next two missions was in place,” he said. “Through these two missions, we’re going to validate our technology to land on the moon safely. After we validate the technology, we’re going to enter the lunar transportation business.”

The two missions ispace has planned involve a lander system the company is developing. The first mission, planned for the fourth quarter of 2019, will place the lander in lunar orbit to carry out observations of the lunar surface. The second mission, planned for launch by the end of 2020, will attempt to land on the surface and deploy a number of small rovers.

Work on the lander started early this year, Hakamada said. The lander should go through two key development milestones, a preliminary design review followed by a critical design review, next year. He said the company is in discussions to launch the spacecraft as secondary payloads on vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

If the missions are successful, he said ispace plans to offer a regular series of lander missions to carry up to 30 kilograms of customer payloads per flight. “We are going to establish a transportation business to the moon,” he said. “One key concept is regular, scheduled transportation to the moon.” Such missions, he added, could fly as frequently as every month depending on customer demand.

Hakamada said that revenue from those missions might be sufficient to allow the company to forego additional funding rounds. “If we can successfully demonstrate our technologies through these first two missions, we don’t need to raise additional funding,” he said.

The initial lander missions will not be the first spacecraft that ispace sends to the moon. The company, through Team Hakuto, is a finalist for the Google Lunar X Prize. The team has built a rover that it plans to fly to the moon on a lander being developed by another finalist, Team Indus.

The team has built the rover and is completing testing of it before shipping it to Team Indus later in the month. It’s unclear, though, when Team Indus will be ready for launch. That team recently said it was seeking to raise $35 million, half of the mission’s overall cost, through sponsorships and crowdfunding. That effort comes just months before the competition is set to expire at the end of March 2018.

Hakamada said the teams were still working to launch the mission before the prize deadline, but declined to give a launch date.

Several funds and companies backed the Series A round. Hakamada said he could not disclose the amounts each participant in the round provided, but said that Innovation Network Corporation of Japan led the round with $31 million.

Other participants in the Series A round included Development Bank of Japan, Tokyo Broadcasting System, Konica Minolta, Shimizu, Suzuki Motor, SPARX, Dentsu, Real Tech Fund, KDDI, Japan Airlines and Toppan Printing. Besides funding, Hakamada said that the investors will be providing technology and other support to ispace.

The company said that that the $90.2 million round was the largest Series A round to date in the “global commercial space sector.” However, OneWeb, the company developing a broadband satellite constellation, raised $500 million in what it called a Series A round in 2015.

While headquartered in Tokyo, ispace also has offices in the United States and Luxembourg, responsible for business development in North America and Europe, respectively, as well as working on payloads for those customers. The company has a memorandum of understanding with the Luxembourg government’s SpaceResources.lu initiative to support the creation of a space resources industry in the company, and is working with a research institute there on a mass spectrometer instrument to be flown on its spacecraft.

In its announcement of the funding, ispace said it wans to eventually support a permanent human presence on the moon, which the company believes can be as large as 1,000 people by 2040 working in various industries. The company, it stated, “will spearhead this development by providing access to the lunar surface and creating a world where the Earth and the moon are one ecosystem.”