A rocket carrying a commercial Japanese lunar lander has launched towards the moon. If successful, it would be the world's first private moon mission. Elon Musk's SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Cosmodrome in Florida on Sunday. She brought the lander "Hakuto-R" of the Japanese company ispace on the way to the moon. Because of the fuel-efficient route, which uses the gravity of the earth and the sun for propulsion, it is likely to take until the end of April for the lander to touch down there. Two American competitors plan to take a more direct route to the moon early next year. Should they also succeed, they might even get there earlier than "Hakuto-R".
It is not the first attempt at a private moon mission. The Israeli non-profit organization Space IL, for example, shot the Beresheet probe towards the moon, but it failed shortly before the finish line in 2019. An important motor of the spacecraft failed during the landing maneuver and communication with the spacecraft was lost. She ended up crashing on the moon. Now the Japanese are trying after their "Hakuto-R" mission had to be postponed several times.
Hakuto means "white rabbit" in Japanese, who lived on the moon in Japanese mythology. The "R" stands for English reboot, restart. The lunar lander, which is 2.3 meters high and 2.6 meters wide with the landing legs extended, weighed around 1000 kilograms when it took off. However, since most of this is fuel that is burned along the way, the lander will only weigh 340 kilograms when it touches down on the moon. It can transport 30 kilograms of cargo.
"Hakuto-R" is expected to spend about two weeks in orbit upon arrival, bringing it closer to the surface with each orbit. If all goes well, "Hakuto-R", which was tested in Ottobrunn near Munich, Germany, will eventually touch down gently in an area called the Atlas Crater. On board he carries international cargo, including a small rover from the United Arab Emirates and an even smaller two-wheeled robot from the Japanese state space agency Jaxa.
So far, only government programs have managed to land on the moon. Moon exploration began in the 1950s during the Cold War as heated competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The Soviets landed an unmanned probe on the lunar surface in 1959. Ten years later, the USA succeeded in launching the first manned mission, Apollo 11. Two years ago, China was also able to send a capsule to the moon and retrieve rock samples. With the Artemis mission of the USA, people are now supposed to fly to the moon again after a long break. The - still unmanned - space capsule "Orion", which flew around the moon as part of the "Artemis 1" mission, is expected to return to Earth on Sunday. A first manned flight ("Artemis 2") around the moon is to be followed by another manned flight including a moon landing ("Artemis 3").
Private companies have also wanted to land on the moon for years. For this purpose, the US technology giant Google advertised the "Google Lunar X" prize for the first non-governmental team to land on the moon in 2007. The "Hakuto" team also participated. But nobody reached the target by the end of the 2018 deadline.
The Japanese then undertook a "reboot", a new attempt, with "Hakuto-R". If their mission M1 succeeds, it would be the first time in the world that a private company lands on the moon with ispace. However, the competition is already in the starting blocks: The US companies Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are planning a more direct route to the moon with their landers and could therefore forestall "Hakuto-R". However, the founder and boss of ispace, Takeshi Hakamada, sees it calmly: "We don't really care who lands first," he told the science magazine "New Scientist". "Our vision is to create an economically viable lunar ecosystem."
Ispace initially plans to launch another lunar lander with its own rover in 2024 and a large lander in 2025. One goal of the company is the business of transporting goods to the surface of the moon. However, Hakamada has another vision for 2040: A small city on the moon called "Moon Valley" with 1,000 residents, complete with infrastructure and industry, as a video on the company's website shows. According to the vision of the Japanese, the city on the moon will attract around 10,000 visitors every year.