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Japan spacecraft set to take early lead

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Artist's rendering of the M1 lander on the moon with Earth in the distance.

Artist’s impression of the Japanese M1 lander, which will carry a number of rovers and other equipment to the Moon.Credit: ispace

A lunar craft made by a Japanese company is vying to become the first commercial mission to land on the Moon. ispace’s M1 lander is scheduled to launch around November 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The lander will carry payloads, including lunar rovers, for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA. If the mission is successful, the vehicles will mark the first incursions of the two countries on the surface of the Moon; so far, only the space agencies of the United States, China and the Soviet Union have successfully landed there.

M1, part of ispace’s Hakuto-R program, will launch on a rocket built by SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California. The craft will take a circuitous route to the Moon, so it will land in late March or early April 2023, depending on its final launch date. That means it could still be overtaken by other Trade Missions launching in 2023.

At least two more landers supported by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program will launch early next year and take a more direct route. Nova-C – the first mission from the American company Intuitive Machines in Houston, Texas – is due to launch in March 2023 and will take just six days to reach the Moon. “It’s going to be a race,” says Abigail Calzada Diaz, a geologist and lunar exploration specialist at the European Space Resources Innovation Center in Luxembourg. “It’s going to be really fun to watch.”

Destination, Moon!

The Moon has become a popular destination among national space agencies and private companies. The successful missions of ispace and other companies will be a “huge and significant milestone for the development of the lunar ecosystem”, said Ryo Ujiie, chief technology officer at ispace. This system is ultimately geared towards harvesting water on the Moon. Some companies hope lunar water can be used to produce rocket fuel that could eventually make solar system exploration cheaper.

A successful mission for a private company funded by its customers will be “quite exciting” because it will show that the model is working, opening the door to other companies, says Calzada Diaz, who previously worked at ispace. And research stands to benefit, she adds. “Just knowing that it’s easier, faster and possible to go to the moon more often is already important for science.”

But a successful landing is far from assured. The first privately-backed mission to attempt a lunar landing – Israel’s Beresheet craft – crashed on the Moon in 2019.

Energy efficient route

M1 will complete a four-month journey that uses the gravitational pull of Earth and the Sun to guide it to the Moon. This requires less propellant than taking a direct route, meaning M1 can carry a heavier payload for the same launch costs. Ujiie declined to disclose the price of the mission.

Once on the Moon, the lander will orbit with an increasingly elliptical trajectory, approaching the surface, before performing a fully automated landing which will see it brake and tilt vertically to land smoothly on the Moon. .

The landing – planned in the Atlas crater on the near side of the Moon – is the riskiest part of the trip. “We sometimes say it’s fifty-fifty” if the landing will be successful, says Hamad Al Marzooqi, project manager for the UAE’s Rashid rover, built by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) in Dubai. “Anything can go wrong.”

The site – which is mostly flat and free of rocks – was mainly chosen because it presents a relatively low risk of landing. But scientists have so little data on the Moon that any new location is scientifically interesting, says Calzada Diaz.

little rover

Rashid is part of a surge in the UAE’s space ambitions following the launch of its Hope probe, which orbits Mars. Unusually for a space mission, Rashid was delivered well ahead of the 2024 deadline set for the MBRSC by the UAE government. Building the rover in such a short time required rapid prototyping, says Al Marqoozi. “We went through five modules until we reached the one that is now ready to launch,” he adds.

The rover is tiny, just over 50 centimeters long and weighs just 10 kilograms, less than a tenth of the mass of China’s Yutu-2, the Moon’s only active rover. Rashid’s mission will last one lunar day, about 14 Earth days, and the toy-sized robot will be guided by an artificial intelligence algorithm that will automatically identify terrain features.

Among the rover’s instruments are four Langmuir probes, which will map the temperature and density of charged particles that affect dust movements across the lunar surface. Rashid will also carry four cameras: two to observe his surroundings, built by the French space agency CNES, a microscopic camera to study the lunar soil, known as regolith, and a thermal camera to analyze the geological characteristics of the site of landing.

Finally, samples of various materials — such as graphene-based composites — will be attached to the rover’s wheels to test their behavior in the harsh lunar environment, which will inform future exploration, says Al Marzooqi. “The data we collect will help improve future development of rovers and robots,” he adds.

Among M1’s other cargoes is a two-wheeled JAXA robot meant to operate for just a few hours. The rover will circle the lunar surface and collect data that will be used to design a future manned rover, the agency says. In addition to the rovers, M1 will carry a 360-degree camera made by Canadian company Canadensys, and it will test the performance of a solid-state battery built by NGK Spark Plug, a company based in Nagoya, Japan.

ispace is already planning future missions: M2, scheduled for 2024, will carry a suite of payloads, including the company’s own lunar rover, says Ujiie. Even if M1 fails “we can still learn something”, he adds. But “I expect it to be a success”.

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