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 — A Japanese company that has roots in the former Google Lunar X Prize competition announced Sept. 26 that it has selected SpaceX to launch a pair of missions to the moon in 2020 and 2021.

Under the agreement, ispace will fly two HAKUTO-R missions, an orbiter and a lander, as secondary payloads on SpaceX Falcon 9 launches. The orbiter is scheduled to launch in a window that opens in mid-2020 and the lander in mid-2021. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

In an interview, ispace Chief Executive Takeshi Hakamada said that the company selected SpaceX over other, unnamed launch providers in part because of price but also because of SpaceX’s high flight rate gives the company a number of opportunities to launch its missions.

“Because we are aiming to provide a frequent lunar transportation service, starting relations with SpaceX is very important,” he said. “SpaceX offers a huge amount of launch opportunities, and this partnership can promote future collaboration with SpaceX.”

The first HAKUTO-R mission will place a spacecraft with a total mass, fully fueled, of 550 kilograms into orbit around the moon. The second mission will be a lander, weighing 1,400 kilograms, including a small rover. Both are intended to demonstrate ispace’s capabilities in delivering payloads to the moon for future commercial customers.

“The first two missions are technology demonstration missions,” he said. “The purpose is to validate that our technology is capable of working at the moon. Then, right after that, we want to plan a series of lunar commercial transportation service missions by our lander.” There’s no specific schedule for those follow-on missions, he said, which will depend on the timing and success of the first two.

Those initial two missions, though, could carry some commercial payloads. Hakamada said he could not discuss specific opportunities for those missions. “We have had several discussions already,” he said.

The two spacecraft are currently in development, having recently completed a preliminary design review. Hakamada said ispace brought in a number of external reviewers, including from the Japanese space agency JAXA as well as from Europe and the United States, who concluded the company is on the right track. The next milestone, critical design review, is planned for early 2019.

Work on the HAKUTO-R missions is funded by the $90 million ispace raised in a Series A funding round last December. “For further missions we’ll need to raise more money to provide a sustainable commercial transportation service,” he said, which ispace will seek to raise once the initial missions are successful. The company also anticipates revenue from flying commercial payloads as well as from sponsorships.

The company currently has more than 60 employees, primarily at its Tokyo headquarters where the spacecraft will be built, as well as an office in Luxembourg that does some business development and research work. The company also has a small office in the United States, currently staffed by a single employee, Hakamada said.

The use of the HAKUTO-R name for the first missions harkens back to the X Prize competition, when the company, competing as Team Hakuto, sought to fly rovers to the moon. As the contest was winding down, it reached an agreement to fly a rover on a lander mission developed by India’s Team Indus, but that lander was not ready for launch before the prize expired in March.

While Team Indus is continuing work on its lunar lander, Hakamada said there are no plans to fly an ispace rover on that mission, but wouldn’t rule out future collaboration. “The contract with Team Indus was only for the Lunar X Prize competition,” he said. “If Team Indus can offer something to us, we are very open to any kind of partnership in the future.”

Hakamada noted the “R” in HAKUTO-R stands for “reboot.” “The Hakuto mission has not failed. It’s still waiting for success,” he said. “We rebooted all the activities after the Lunar X Prize competition, and we will have success this time.”

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...