Kenneth Chang

Live Updates: NASA’s Artemis I Moon Mission Returns to Earth

Another day, another rocket launch by SpaceX and another spacecraft going to the moon. All of this seems commonplace these days.

SpaceX has already launched its Falcon 9 rocket more than 50 times this year. NASA’s Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight that is a precursor to future astronaut missions, is nearing its return to Earth after circling the Moon. CAPSTONE, a small NASA-sponsored CubeSat, is still orbiting the moon after its launch in June. A South Korean robotic orbiter, Danuri, was launched to the Moon in August.

But the lunar lander carried Sunday by a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is not a NASA mission. Instead, known as the M1, it comes from a small Japanese company, Ispace. Payloads on M1 include a rover from the United Arab Emirates and a small Transformers-like two-wheeled robot for the Japanese space agency.

As the mission lifted off at 2:38 a.m. EST, you’ll have to wait until April to see if these robotic explorers make it there, perhaps becoming the first cargo successfully transported to the lunar surface by a private company.

What is Ispace and what does it send to the moon?

The company started out as one of the competitors in the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition that offered a $20 million prize for the first private spacecraft to land on the moon, travel 500 meters, and send back video from the lunar surface.

At the time, the Japanese group, known as Team Hakuto, was focused on developing a rover, and it had to rely on a competing Indian team for the journey to the surface of the moon. If it had worked, the two rovers would have raced to see which could complete the 500 meters first.

However, the Lunar X prize expired before either team reached the launch pad. An Israeli competitor, SpaceIL, launched its craft in 2019, but its lunar lander crashed into the lunar surface.

The group known as Team Hakuto has evolved into Ispace, attracting considerable investment, and the company plans to launch a series of commercial lunar landers in the coming years.

For Sunday’s mission, payloads include the Rashid lunar rover from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai; a two-wheeled “transformable lunar robot” from JAXA, the Japanese space agency; a test module for a solid-state battery from NGK Spark Plug Company; an artificial intelligence flight computer; and 360 degree cameras from Canadensys Aerospace.

As a remnant of its Lunar X Prize legacy, it also bears an engraved panel with the names of people who provided crowdfunding support and a music disc with a song performed by Japanese rock band Sakanaction.

The Japanese company’s lander is not the only passenger on Sunday’s flight. A secondary payload on Falcon 9 is a small NASA Lunar Flashlight mission, which is to enter an elliptical orbit around the moon and use an infrared laser to probe deep, dark craters in the moon’s polar regions.

Why will it take so long for Ispace to get to the Moon?

Much like some other recent lunar missions, M1 is making a circuitous, energy-efficient trip to the moon and won’t land, in the Atlas crater in the moon’s northern hemisphere, until late April. The fuel-efficient trajectory allows the mission to carry more payload and carry less fuel.

Who are the other recent visitors to the moon?

As part of the Artemis I mission, NASA’s Orion spacecraft traveled to the Moon and then into orbit. It will return to Earth later on Sunday, with a dip in the Pacific Ocean.

A small NASA-funded mission called CAPSTONE also arrived recently to explore an orbit in which NASA plans to build a lunar outpost where astronauts will stop on their way to the moon.

And although it hasn’t arrived yet, the moon will receive a third new visitor next month. Danuri, a South Korean space probe, was launched in August and is due to enter lunar orbit on December 16. The spacecraft will help develop technology for future Korean missions, and it also carries scientific instruments to study the moon’s chemical composition and magnetic field.

Are other companies trying what Ispace does?

A NASA program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, seeks to send experiments to the surface of the moon. The first two missions, from Intuitive Machines of Houston and Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, are expected to launch next year after considerable delays. The Intuitive Machines lander, which could launch as early as March, could even beat Ispace to the moon because it uses a fast six-day trajectory.

Not being an American company, Ispace could not participate directly in the NASA program. However, he is part of a team led by Draper Technologies of Cambridge, Mass., that won a NASA CLPS mission. This mission should be launched in 2025.

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