SpaceX delays mission to put first private Japanese lander on Moon

SpaceX launches batch of Starlink satellites with Falcon 9

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For the second day in a row, SpaceX has postponed the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a mission aiming to put the first private — and also Japanese — lander on the Moon. Previously, the only nations to successfully place a robot on the lunar surface have been the United States, China and Russia. The “Hakuto” lander — which is being delivered by the Japanese firm ispace — is expected to touch down in the Atlas crater on the near side of the Moon in around April next year, the operators said.

Originally, the mission was scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, early yesterday morning — before SpaceX announced that it would be delaying the launch in order to undertake more “pre-flight checkouts”.

A new launch window was pencilled in for this morning — at 3.37am local time (08.37am GMT) — before the Elon Musk-owned firm announced a further delay.

On Twitter, SpaceX said: “After further inspections of the launch vehicle and data review, we’re standing down from tomorrow’s launch of @ispace_inc’s HAKUTO-R Mission 1; a new target launch date will be shared once confirmed.”

It is understood that SpaceX is hopeful of establishing a new launch date within the coming days — which should not interfere significantly with the mission plans.

The lander mission is the first of a program called “Hakuto-R”. This original Hakuto mission was one of five finalists in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which launched in 2007.

The contest was intended to encourage the development of the first private mission to land a rover on the moon, drive it 547 yards, and transmit high-definition images and video back to Earth. While the competition ended in 2018 without a winner, some of the projects continue.

(Another finalist — Israel’s SpaceIL — made an attempt to land on the Moon back in early 2019, but the craft crashed instead.)

According to ispace, the firm’s goal is “to extend the sphere of human life into space and create a sustainable world by providing high-frequency, low-cost transportation services to the Moon.

Takeshi Hakamada, ispace CEO, added: “We have achieved so much in the six short years since we first began conceptualising this project in 2016.”

Future Hakuto-R missions are intended to help contribute to NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration programme (the Artemis I uncrewed test flight of which is presently in a distant orbit around the Moon.)

NASA has contracted various companies to develop lunar landers that it could use to transport scientific equipment down to the surface of the Moon, where the space agency is ultimately looking to establish a base.

In fact, some experts believe that two US firms — Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, which are looking to launch their landers early next year — may actually beat ispace to the lunar surface by taking advantage of a more direct route to the Moon.

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Regardless of whether or not Hakuto-R Mission 1 does eventually succeed in reaching the lunar surface before its US counterparts, it still has potential to make the record books. This is because the lander is carrying the “Rashid” rover, the first Arab Moon mission.

Built by the United Arab Emirates — a newcomer to the space race that nevertheless successfully launched a Mars probe back in 2020 — Rashid weighs in at around 22 lbs and measures around 6.5 by 8.2 feet.

Rashid, developed at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, is equipped with two main high-resolution cameras, as well as both microscopic and thermal imaging cameras. It also carries an instrument known as a Langmuir probe, which it will use to study the Moon’s plasma and attempt to determine why Moon dust is so sticky

Hakuto-R Mission 2 — which will include both a lunar lander and a rover — is scheduled to blast off for the moon in 2024.

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