A Japanese company called ispace is about to attempt a landing on the moon. If successful, it will be the first private company to achieve such a feat, following in the footsteps of US, Chinese and Soviet national space agencies.
What is the ispace mission?
To put its lander, named Hakuto-R, on the lunar surface. It was launched from Earth on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 11 December 2022. To save fuel, the spacecraft took a slow path to the moon, arriving in lunar orbit three months later in March.
What time will it land?
At 4.40 pm BST, the craft will begin its landing sequence from lunar orbit, 100 kilometres above the moon’s surface. If all goes to plan, it will touch down an hour later, at 5.40 pm BST.
How can I watch it?
There will be a live stream of the landing on YouTube.
Where is it landing?
The spacecraft is targeting a landing site at Atlas crater in a region of the moon’s northern hemisphere called Mare Frigoris, or the “sea of cold”, further north than all of NASA’s six Apollo landings. Three back-up sites have been chosen, also in the northern hemisphere.
How big is the spacecraft?
Hakuto-R is 2.3 metres tall and 2.6 metres wide, weighing about 1000 kilograms with all its fuel. It has four landing legs and a thruster to touch down on the lunar surface.
What is it carrying?
The mission has several payloads for different customers. The Japanese space agency has a small, transforming robotic ball on board to practise roving on the moon. There is also a small rover from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, along with a solid-state battery test from a Japanese company and a 360-degree camera from a Canadian firm.
How will we know if it succeeds?
Engineers at mission control in Tokyo will receive data and images from the lander to indicate if it has touched down.
What could go wrong?
The lander could hit the moon too fast and be destroyed. This has happened before. For example, in April 2019, a lander called Beresheet from the Israeli company SpaceIL crashed into the surface. An Indian lander, Vikram, suffered the same fate in September 2019.
Why is there renewed interest in the moon?
NASA’s goal of returning humans to the moon this decade, as part of its Artemis programme, has spurred much of the interest. It has awarded contracts to many companies to carry equipment to the moon or even, in the case of ispace, return material from the moon on a later mission. A competition known as the Google Lunar Xprize also challenged private companies to reach the moon. While it ended in 2018, some of its entrants – including ispace – have continued their efforts.
What will land on the moon next?
A US firm called Intuitive Machines may launch to the moon’s south pole in June and land that same month. Another US firm, Astrobotic, hopes to launch and land in a similar time frame.