Joint mission: Japan, UAE, NASA and SpaceX head to the moon
With the NASA-led Artemis 1 mission to the moon still ongoing and the Capstone probe collecting information on the moon’s orbit, a joint Japanese, UAE, SpaceX mission is scheduled to launch a probe tasked with landing on the lunar surface. The Japanese lander, the Hakuto-R M1, will take a UAE rover, dubbed “Rashid,” to the lunar surface, with landing scheduled for March 2023. Rashid is designed to snap pictures of the lunar surface and examine its electrically charged environment. The launch has been delayed due to ongoing problems with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The same Falcon 9 will launch NASA CubeSat nanosatellite called Lunar Flashlight. The probe will enter a similar near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) now occupied by Capstone. It will use a laser to shine inside some of the permanently darkened craters at the lunar poles in search of water ice.
The Hakuto-R M1 carries a number of other government and commercial payloads. It is managed by a private company called iSpace.
The landing attempt will be challenging. Previous attempts to land on the moon by Israel and India have come to grief. China, considered a rival to the American-led Artemis Alliance, has successfully landed a number of landers and rovers on the lunar surface.
If the Hakuto-R M1 is successful, it will return a lot of good science that will benefit the overall return to the moon. However, the mission will also prove the concept of two new models for space exploration.
First, Hakuto-R M1 is a private venture, taking its payloads to the moon for a fee. Traditionally, space exploration, especially to the moon, has been the province of national space agencies. In this case, space agencies are involved in the mission, but as customers.
Second, unlike NASA’s Apollo program and the equivalent Soviet lunar effort, Hakuto-R M1 is a collaborative effort involving a number of nations, institutions and commercial companies. Apollo was all about international competition. While China is involved in a space race with much of the rest of the world, Hakuto-R M1 is a mission characterized by cooperation.
Cooperative space projects are nothing new. The International Space Station (ISS) has earned its name for a reason. The Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft includes a service module built by the European Space Agency.
Commercial space missions include the SpaceX Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station. The SpaceX Crew Dragon has also conducted stand-alone private space flights, such as the recent Inspiration 4 mission that raised funds for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Missions like the Hakuto-R M1 are made possible because of the low launch cost of the SpaceX Falcon 9.
The Artemis program to return to the moon and associated lunar exploration missions such as Hakuto-R M1 have a better chance of succeeding because they are both international and semi-commercial.
The international aspects of the return to the moon rely on the expertise and resources of many nations. Scientists and engineers across the world are involved in expanding the realm of human endeavor to the moon. “Diversity is strength” may be a little shop worn. But the phrase holds a lot of truth where an undertaking with the scope of going back to the moon is concerned.
The commercial aspect of Hakuto-R M1, as well as the larger Artemis program, takes advantage of the efficiency and the ability to think outside the box inherent in private companies such as iSpace and SpaceX. NASA has accomplished some magnificent things. The Artemis 1 mission and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope are just two recent examples. But the space agency that took men to the moon has done little, if anything, cheaply. The nature of government bureaucracies and the need to appease politicians ensures that government space missions lacking a commercial component will always be expensive.
China, which has emerged as NASA’s main rival in space, particularly in the return to the moon, lacks both an international space alliance and a thriving commercial space sector. While Beijing has made remarkable progress in space, with several uncrewed moon landings and a small space station, in the long run it will likely be left behind by NASA and its international and commercial partners.
Hakuto-R M1 will be, if it succeeds, just the first of many missions to land on the moon, some private, some carried out by national space agencies. All of these landers and rovers will lead to the day when human beings return to the moon, as Tennyson said, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.