Three governments have landed spacecraft on the Moon – but no private company has managed to do so in the history of human space exploration.
A Japanese company is attempting to change that and become the first.
Tokyo-based company ispace fired its lander off on a five-month journey to lunar orbit back in December.
It was launched on a SpaceX rocket, which was also carrying the United Arab Emirates’ first lunar rover and a toy-like robot from Japan that’s designed to roll around in the Moon’s grey dust.
On Tuesday, flight controllers will direct the craft – named Hakuto (Japanese for white rabbit) – to descend from 100 km high and land.
The 7-foot lander will transport the UAE’s mini lunar rover and the Japanese robot.
The UAE’s rover’s wheels have European Space Agency-designed panels, so when the rover touches down it will be the first European technology to make contact with the lunar surface.
“The invitation to contribute to the Rashid rover’s wheel-based Material Adhesion and Abrasion Detection experiment was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” said Aidan Cowley of ESA’s ExPeRT (Exploration Preparation, Research, and Technology) team, developing new technologies for human lunar and planetary exploration, based at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany.
“This is a chance to touch the Moon for real, to see how material technologies that we have already been working on behave in the actual lunar environment. So we will see how they interact with the regolith as the wheels make contact with the surface, as well as enduring wider lunar conditions”.
Only three governments have successfully landed on the Moon: Russia, the United States, and China. An Israeli non-profit tried to land on the moon in 2019, but its spacecraft was destroyed on impact.
Israel still called the mission an “amazing success” for reaching the Moon and coming so close to landing.
Hakuto took a long, roundabout route to the Moon following its December liftoff, beaming back photos of Earth along the way.
Ispace designed its craft to use minimal fuel to save money and leave more room for cargo. Its route was therefore a slow, low-energy one to the Moon, flying 1.6 million km from Earth before looping back and intersecting with the Moon.
By contrast, NASA’s Orion crew capsule with test dummies took five days to reach the Moon last November.
The ispace lander will aim for Atlas crater in the northeastern section of the Moon’s near side, more than 87 kilometers across and just over 2 km deep. With its four legs extended, the lander is more than 2.3 m tall.