SpaceX is about to launch the world’s first private lander

It is not a device designed by the firm of Elon Musk, but by the Japanese company ispace.

Thursday, December 1, SpaceX will conduct a major launch. A Falcon 9 launcher will set off from the US Space Force base at Cape Canaveral, with a rather special cargo on board: a lander which intends to become the first Japanese vehicle, but also and above all the first private vehicle to land on our satellite.

It will therefore be an event of considerable importance. Because if this moon landing goes as planned, Japan will join a very closed circle. So far only three countries have already achieved this technical feat. Russia (or rather the Soviet Union) got the ball rolling in 1966. It was then joined by the United States in 1969. Since the two historic aerospace giants slowed down, very few countries have had the ambition to imitate them. It took more than 40 years to see a third nation – China – land on the Moon.

But this Japanese mission, the first of a large program called Hakuto-R, has a very important difference. Until now, all the vehicles that have landed on our satellite have been built within the framework of institutional programs led by national space agencies. This mission, on the other hand, is managed by ispace, a private Japanese company.

The world’s first private lander

The latter came to the fore thanks to the international Google Lunar XPrize program. This was a competition where the participants all sought to launch the first private lander before 2018. None of the companies entered achieved this goal; but the program has at least had the merit of sowing the seeds of some promising missions.

We can cite the Israeli firm SpaceIL, another finalist of the Lunar XPrize. It developed the Beresheet lander. It looked great, but unfortunately crashed into our satellite in 2019, after missing a braking manoeuvre.

From now on, it is the Japanese who are best placed to grill their politeness with their small machine of 2 x 2.5 meters. And if ispace achieves its goal, it can claim the first-ever private moon landing in aerospace history. And this barely six years after the start of its activity; quite an impressive timeframe in a field as complex as aerospace and with relatively limited funds.

Note that SpaceX is also building a lander: it is the Human Landing System, a vehicle based on the famous Starship. Technically, it is indeed a machine designed by a private company. But the mission still fits into an institutional framework. As a reminder, the vehicle is being developed on behalf of NASA following a call for tenders that Elon Musk’s firm won after a bitter legal battle against Blue Origin (see our article). The HLS is therefore not really a private machine. And in any case, he won’t leave for the Moon until 2025 at the earliest. SpaceX is therefore already out of the running for the title of “first private lander“.

The United Arab Emirates’ first lunar mission

And if so, it would also be a huge success for another more low-key country in the space race. Because on board the vehicle that will land on the Moon, we will find Rashid, a small rover of about ten kilograms designed by the United Arab Emirates.

The country of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is relatively new in this field. But it can already be proud of some great successes, starting with a Mars probe launched in 2020. If the mission goes smoothly, it will be the oil superpower’s first lunar mission.

Originally, the ispace vehicle was supposed to leave today. But shortly before launch, SpaceX announced a slight delay on Twitter.

Apparently, the company wants to conduct an additional battery of tests before takeoff. the deadline has therefore been postponed by one day; takeoff is now scheduled for Thursday, December 1 at 9:37 a.m. French time. It will be possible to follow the departure live on the SpaceX YouTube channel.

But to know if the lander will succeed in landing, or if it will experience the same disastrous fate as Beresheet, we will have to wait a little longer. The moon landing itself is scheduled for next April. So we look forward to seeing you tomorrow for the launch, then in the spring to attend the last stage of this important mission for Japanese aerospace.

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