Moon landing appears failed for private Japanese firm ispace

Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, speaks at the end of the livestream of the HAKUTO-R private lunar exploration program at the lunar landing event Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, in Tokyo. Tokyo’s ispace tried to land its own spacecraft on the moon early on Wednesday, but its fate was unknown as flight controllers lost contact with it moments before the planned touchdown. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Japanese company ispace was set to make history Tuesday, becoming the first company to successfully deliver a commercially developed spacecraft to the lunar surface. That dream ended prematurely, as the company’s founder announced that they’d lost communications with the craft right before its scheduled landing, most likely signaling a loss of the spacecraft. 

“We have to assume that we did not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” Takeshi Hakamada, ispace founder, said during the live launch broadcast.

The spacecraft launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 11 from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The vehicle traveled roughly 239,000 miles to get to lunar orbit. After its arrival on March 21, the craft spent a few weeks orbiting the moon and preparing to deliver two different payloads to the lunar surface — a Japanese lander called HAKUTO and a lunar rover built by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) called Rashid.

The intended landing site for the HAKUTO-R mission was the Atlas Crater, which is situated in the northeastern quadrant of the moon. This site offered the best location to put the lander through its paces as a technology demonstration mission. 

In 2012, SpaceX made history by becoming the first company to send a private, commercially-funded spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) and now ispace’s plan to take that to the next level has most likely been thwarted. To date, only three countries have successfully touched down on the lunar surface — the United States, the former Soviet Union and China — with others trying but failing. 

Japan’s ispace is looking at the moon with a slightly different lens, aiming to land its spacecraft there as a part of a for-profit business model, rather than under the banner of a specific country. Tokyo-based ispace first dreamt of making it to the lunar surface as part of a contest called the Google Lunar XPrize, which was ultimately scrapped in 2018. As part of that contest, companies competed to send a rover to the moon, have it land successfully, move several thousand feet and then beam data back the data to Earth. If successful, the winning company would receive $20 million.   

ispace, along with several others, chose to continue with its lunar endeavors after the contest was disbanded without a prize.

In 2019, Israeli company SpaceIL was the first former XPrize contestant to land on the moon, but its lander crashed into the lunar surface while attempting to land and was never heard from again. 

Later that year, India’s space agency, the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO), lost contact with a lunar lander shortly before it could touch down on the moon. Images of the crash site were later captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, confirming the loss.

But ispace will fly again. The company has plans for future lunar missions, including collecting and returning samples of lunar soil for NASA, and will work to provide lunar rovers to NASA as part of the agency’s Artemis Moon program.

Tags Moon Space exploration

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