BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Japanese lunar lander developer ispace said Feb. 27 that its first mission remains on track to attempt a landing in two months as it makes progress on its next two missions.
The company’s HAKUTO-R Mission 1 spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 Dec. 11. The launch placed the spacecraft on a low-energy trajectory that took the spacecraft nearly 1.4 million kilometers from Earth by Jan. 20 before swinging back, and it is currently about 900,000 kilometers away.
In a media briefing, ispace executives said the Mission 1 lander is in good condition ahead of plans to enter orbit around the moon in the latter half of March and attempt a landing in Atlas Crater, located on the edge of Mare Frigoris in the northeastern quadrant of the near side of the moon, around the end of April.
“Our first flight to the moon is going very well,” said Ryo Ujiie, chief technology officer of ispace. That included completing the first 5 of 10 mission milestones, from launch to stable operations in deep space.
“We have been operating our lander as well as expected so far, without any critical issues,” said Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive of ispace. “It does not mean that there have been no challenges.”
Controllers have dealt with several minor problems with the spacecraft, Ujiie explained. That included spacecraft temperatures higher than expected, although still within acceptable ranges, as well as what the company called an “unexpected communication instability” shortly after deployment. One onboard computer has rebooted multiple times, but that has not affected spacecraft operations because of redundant systems.
“We have experienced several anomalies, but we have already solved those issues,” he said.
Flight controllers have also learned about how to manage the spacecraft. “I have been very pleased working with the team and how they have operated under pressure,” he said. “We are gaining extremely valuable experience and leaning a significant amount about ourselves and our lander.”
The Mission 1 lander is scheduled to perform a lunar orbital insertion maneuver in late March, followed by a landing by the end of April. Ujiie declined to give specific dates for either milestone.
While Mission 1 is ongoing, ispace is working on two future missions. The Mission 2 lander, scheduled for launch in 2024, will carry a set of customer payloads as well as a “micro rover” that ispace developed. That rover will collect a regolith sample that will be transferred to NASA under a 2020 contract awarded to ispace’s European subsidiary.
A structural thermal model of the Mission 2 lander is being assembled at a Japan Air Lines facility at Narita International Airport in Japan. That will be followed by construction of portions of the flight model in Germany starting in April.
The Mission 2 lander will be similar in design to Mission 1. “We don’t have any significant differences between Mission 1 and Mission 2,” said Ujiie, noting ispace already incorporated lessons learned from the development of the first lander into the second.
Mission 3 will be developed by ispace U.S., the company’s American subsidiary, supporting Draper, which won a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) award for the farside landing mission last July. That Series 2 lander will be larger than the Mission 1 and 2 spacecraft with increased payload capacity and a modular design.
In addition to the NASA CLPS payload, ispace is in discussions with several companies to fly commercial payloads on Mission 3, including AstronetX, ArkEdge Space, Aviv Labs and Cesium Astro. There are no binding contracts yet with those customers, Hakamada said, but argued there was a “strong willingness” to complete such deals. “We look forward to finalizing these service agreements as soon as possible.”
The company is in line to be the first private mission to land on the moon if Mission 1 touches down safely in April. The privately funded Israeli lander Beresheet crashed attempting a landing in 2019. Two American companies, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, plan to launch their first lander missions later this spring.
Hakamada said it was a “great honor” to potentially be the first company to land on the moon, but emphasized it was not about just the ongoing mission. “Ispace is not a company to execute only one mission. Ispace is a company to offer a series of missions to answer customers’ continuous demand.”