ispace lander
Japan's ispace plans to launch its first two missions, including its first lander, as secondary payloads on SpaceX launches in mid-2020 and mid-2021. Credit: ispace

WASHINGTON — Days after Astrobotic announced its selection of United Launch Alliance to launch its first lunar lander, Japanese lunar lander company ispace says it is modifying its schedule for commercial lunar lander missions.

Tokyo-based ispace said Aug. 22 that it is dropping plans to do an initial orbital mission, which was to launch in 2020 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9. Instead, its first mission will be the Hakuto-R lander, scheduled to launch in 2021, with a second lander mission, equipped with a rover, to follow in 2023. Both lander missions will launch as Falcon 9 secondary payloads.

In a statement, ispace said that “dramatic market acceleration and increasing demand for lunar exploration around the world” led it to push ahead directly to a lander mission, noting that the earlier orbiter mission was solely intended to be a technology demonstration, with no commercial payloads.

Another factor, the company says, is its role in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where ispace is a subcontractor to Draper. That opportunity came after the company announced its plans for a 2020 orbiter. “To increase its competitiveness and guarantee its ability to support NASA’s needs, as well as to meet the several other market demands developing worldwide, ispace decided to shift its resources to realize a successful landing mission in 2021,” the company stated.

Moving directly to a lander mission is not without risk, the company acknowledged, including additional work on the lander’s structural and power systems. The company will also work to obtain access to a ground station for communicating with the lander and establishing a mission control.

The company, with 100 people in three locations globally, also announced Aug. 22 partnerships with three Japanese companies. Citizen Watch Co. will provide its special processing techniques for titanium components on the lander. Suzuki Motor Corp. will offer its expertise in structural analysis for the Hakuto-R lander. Sumitomo Corp. will work with ispace on unspecific commercial space development opportunities.

The ispace announcement comes after Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, another lunar lander company, said Aug. 19 it will launch its Peregine lander on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. The lander will be a payload on the first Vulcan Centaur launch in 2021.

Astrobotic had announced an agreement with ULA in July 2017, where Peregrine would launch as a secondary payload on an Atlas 5 in 2019. However, when NASA selected Astrobotic in May for a $79.5 million CLPS contract for that 2021 mission, John Thornton, chief executive of the company, said Astrobotic was “assessing our launch options” and would choose a launch provider in the near future.

“This contract with ULA was the result of a highly competitive commercial process, and we are grateful to everyone involved in helping us make low-cost lunar transportation possible,” Thornton said in the statement announcing the Vulcan Centaur contract.

At the May announcement, Astrobotic said Peregrine would launch in June 2021 and land in the crater Lacus Mortis in July. The Aug. 19 announcement only said that the mission would launch in 2021. ULA had previously stated it expected the first Vulcan Centaur launch to take place in the spring of 2021.

“Our rockets have carried exploration missions to the moon, the sun and every planet in the solar system, so it is only fitting that Vulcan Centaur’s inaugural flight will lead the return of Americans to the lunar surface,” Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA, said in a statement.

The announcement didn’t specify if the Peregrine lander would be the primary payload for that mission or a secondary payload. Asked on Twitter about this, Bruno responded, “We’ll see.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...