SpaceX launches Japanese lunar lander and NASA lunar ice mapper

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off early Sunday from Cape Canaveral, launching a commercially developed Japanese lunar lander into space for a three-month journey to land in a 54-mile-wide crater. Also on board: a small NASA orbiter that will search for ice deposits in cold, permanently shadowed craters near the moon’s poles.

Fittingly, the launch came on the 50th anniversary of Apollo’s last moon landing in 1972 and just 10 hours before NASA’s unmanned Orion lunar craft was supposed to dive in the pacific ocean west of Baja California to complete a 25-day test flight.

Putting on a spectacular nighttime spectacle, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off into space early Sunday, sending a Japanese robotic lander and a small NASA orbiter on its way to the moon. The launch took place on the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo moon landing in 1972. / Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

Orion’s Artemis 1 mission is set to pave the way for manned flights to the moon from 2024. Tokyo-based Ispace, builder of the Hakuto-R lunar lander, hopes to help pave the way for operations to the moon, carrying small government and civilian payloads to the lunar surface.

The mission began at 2:38 a.m. EST when Falcon 9’s first-stage engines ignited with a roar that shook the ground and throttled up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust to begin an illuminating ascent to the sky. ‘space.

The first stage, making its fifth flight, rocketed the 229-foot-tall rocket out of the lower atmosphere, then separated, flipped and returned to land at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Heralded by sonic booms rattling through windows, the slender thruster descended on a brilliant jet of flame, deploying four landing legs for a moment before settling for a perfect landing on a concrete slab. It was SpaceX’s 155th successful booster recovery, its 27th in Florida, and its second in three days.

Hakuto-R, meanwhile, was released from Falcon 9’s second stage about 47 minutes after launch. It is expected to reach the moon in five months, using a low-energy trajectory that will carry it millions of miles into space. Gravity from the sun and earth, along with periodic firings of the onboard thrusters, will then combine to drive the craft back toward the moon.

Artist's impression of the Hakuto-R lunar lander one ton of ispace on the surface of the moon.  As the partner company's logos indicate, the spacecraft is the first privately developed lunar lander to go into space.  / Credit: ispace

Artist’s impression of the Hakuto-R lunar lander one ton of ispace on the surface of the moon. As the partner company’s logos indicate, the spacecraft is the first privately developed lunar lander to go into space. / Credit: ispace

If all goes well, the spacecraft will descend to the floor of Atlas Crater with a rocket-propelled landing in late April, landing on four shock-absorbing legs.

Once on the surface, a small 22-pound rover known as Rashid, built by the United Arab Emirates, will roll down a ramp and onto the surface to study the area’s geology, soil properties, movement of dust and electrically charged plasma environment.

An even smaller half-pound baseball-sized rover, known as the Japanese Lunar Excursion Vehicle, will carry its own cameras to the surface for independent research.

Takeshi Hakamada, Founder and CEO of ispace, said the company’s goal is to contribute to the development of a lunar economy and infrastructure by providing rapid access to the lunar surface, thus strengthening the NASA-led Artemis program.

“It’s an honor to become the first (privately funded) launch and landing on the lunar surface,” Hakamada said in an interview with CBS News. “However, that is not our goal. Our goal is to create a sustainable ecosystem.

“We must have at least several competitors in this market. Otherwise, there is no incentive to develop this industry. So I am very happy to have other competitors … and to develop this industry with them.”

Artist's impression of NASA's Lunar Flashlight orbiter, fitted with infrared lasers to scan permanently shadowed craters for ice deposits that could provide an in situ source of air, water and fuel for rocket for future astronauts.  / Credit: NASA

Artist’s impression of NASA’s Lunar Flashlight orbiter, fitted with infrared lasers to scan permanently shadowed craters for ice deposits that could provide an in situ source of air, water and fuel for rocket for future astronauts. / Credit: NASA

Joining Hakuto-R aboard Falcon 9 was NASA’s lunar flashlight, a so-called “smallsat” equipped with four infrared lasers. Orbiting the moon in an extremely elliptical orbit carrying it up to 43,000 miles from the surface just nine miles at closest approach, the lunar flashlight will probe the lunar soil below for signs of ice.

Rock and soil will simply reflect and scatter the laser light, but ice will absorb it. NASA is particularly interested in probing the permanently shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole where previous satellite observations have detected chemical signatures that could indicate the presence of ice.

Ice could be an essential resource for future astronauts and it is a central theme of NASA’s Artemis program. If accessible deposits are discovered, the ice could be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, allowing future explorers to make rocket fuel, air and water on the moon, without the huge expense of transporting rockets. goods from Earth.

“We’re bringing a literal flashlight to the moon, shining lasers into these dark craters to look for definitive signs of water ice covering the top layer of lunar regolith,” lead researcher Barbara Cohen said in a statement. NASA press release. “I’m excited to see our mission contributing to our scientific understanding of where water ice is on the moon and how it gets there.”

Hakuto-R is a technological demonstrator and is not equipped with any specific instrument. But Hakamada said the ice is a key catalyst for the eventual development of commercial infrastructure on and around the moon.

“We believe this will be the key to kick-starting the lunar economy,” he said. “In order to utilize these resources, we believe that in the short term, we need high frequency transport to the lunar surface to support science missions, exploration missions and also technology demonstration missions.

“We plan to offer frequent surface missions. After 2025, we plan to offer two to three missions per year.”

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