SpaceX Launches Lunar Mission for Japan, UAE

SpaceX successfully launched a lunar mission for Japan and the UAE. The UAE provided Rashid, a nearly 10-kilogram lunar rover that will operate on the Moon for 10 days. Japan sent the HAKUTO-R Mission 1 robotic lander. HAKUTO-R is currently rolled up in the shape of a ball and will unroll when it reaches the Moon.

Hakuto is the Japanese word for “white rabbit.” According to Japanese folklore, a white rabbit lives on the Moon. HAKUTO-R is funded by a company called ispace, which also has plans to fly follow-up missions to the Moon in 2024 and 2025.

Hardware included in the joint UAE-Japan mission also includes a solid-state battery provided by a Japanese company, an AI computer that will study geological features for the mission, and 360-degree cameras provided by a Canadian company.

NASA hitched a ride with a laser experiment for a separate mission bound for the lunar south pole. The explorations of the Moon’s south pole are part of preparations for a potential permanent presence on the Moon that could follow the Artemis Program’s first crewed lunar landings.

HAKUTO-R and Rashid will land on the Moon in five months. SpaceX had initially planned to launch it on November 30. However, it delayed the launch twice to allow for additional checkouts of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Ispace originally planned Hakuto as a contender for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which would have awarded $20 million to the first private company to successfully land a robotic probe on the Moon. It managed to complete a rover demonstration for the XPRIZE. However, its primary spacecraft failed to complete its mission.

An Israeli nonprofit organization called SpaceIL nearly managed to win the $20 million prize with its Beresheet lander, but the lander crashed on the Moon during descent to the lunar surface. The deadline for the Google Lunar XPRIZE expired in 2018 with no award given.

Despite missing the deadline for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, ispace did not give up. The “R” in the HAKUTO-R name stands for “Reboot.” Its goals include building the capacity for high-frequency, low-cost transportation services to the Moon. Its current operations include work on one of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts as part of a team lead by Draper. The contract includes putting a lander on the far side of the Moon by 2025.

Ispace also has contracts to collect lunar regolith samples for NASA and test a method for extracting water on the Moon. The ability to harvest water on the Moon will be critical for a sustainable presence on the lunar surface.

Ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada expressed enthusiasm about the future of lunar exploration, which he anticipates will have economic benefits.

“This is the dawn of the lunar economy,” Hakamada said during SpaceX’s livestreamed video of the launch. “Let’s go to the moon.”

The launch used one of SpaceX’s previously flown Falcon 9 first stage boosters. The Falcon 9 landed at a designated landing site not far from the launchpad and could be used again for another mission.