On Wednesday, a Japanese company called ispace announced that it has two missions planned to the Moon within the next three years and that it has acquired ride-share launches on two Falcon 9 rockets to carry out those flights. The company’s founder, Takeshi Hakamada, also said he has a long-term vision to have a city on the Moon visited by 10,000 people a year by 2040.
If this all sounds a little too ambitious, well, welcome to the world of aerospace, which is always heavy on promotion and big ideas. And we like that. NASA didn’t land on the Moon because it was timid. However, we also feel compelled to bring at least a splash of realism to the conversation.
The two missions ispace announced Wednesday are an orbiter launch in mid-2020 and a more complicated lander-and-rover mission a year later. Both will be secondary payloads on Falcon 9 rocket launches, being released by the rocket’s second stage in geostationary transfer orbit. From there, they will proceed to the Moon under their own propulsive power.
The initial orbiter is a relatively straightforward mission. Jamie Denniston, the lead lander engineer for the company, said mission success would be reaching lunar orbit. Beyond that, the company hopes to take images of the surface and validate some of its navigation systems for future missions.
Following this mission, ispace has completed a preliminary design review of its lander, which houses rovers. There is a larger “mother” rover that can then deploy a smaller “child” rover to enter into “skylights” that lead to lunar lava tubes. The child rover would remain attached to its mother rover by a tether, which would provide power and communications. This is both strikingly cool and ambitious.
Mission success does not require these complex maneuvers, however. For this mission, due to launch in mid-2021, ispace defines mission success as making a soft landing and surviving on the Moon’s surface for one day. Any exploration activities, or lava tube forays, will be considered a bonus.
During a teleconference with several reporters, Hakamada said the company hopes to demonstrate to potential customers the initial capability to deliver 30kg of payload to the lunar surface. But he also has longer-term plans that will allow it to serve customers seeking to reach the lunar surface with larger payloads. Plus, the company is developing the capability to mine ice from the lunar poles to convert the hydrogen and oxygen into rocket fuel.
“Around 2030 we expect to begin developing propellant and sending it to spacecraft in space,” Hakamada said. He hopes that by then, there will be several hundred people working on the Moon, or in lunar orbit, to support an industrial base. A decade later, by 2040, he envisions a city called “Moon Valley” on the lunar surface, with a diverse array of industries and thousands of visitors per year.
“We believe we can establish such a world if we can actively develop our capability in the current speed,” Hakamada said.
Is this real?
Hakamada led the team named Hakuto in the Google Lunar X Prize, which no teams were able to win by the project’s deadline earlier this year. Since that competition ended, Hakamada has continued to work for the ispace company he founded. He says the company has raised $95 million so far, enough to finance the orbiter and lander mission.
That is a sizable amount of money, but, until the company begins to produce flight hardware, it’s difficult to credit its efforts too much, even if its preliminary designs seem sound. (We have seen a similar phenomenon with another company, Moon Express, seeking to develop lunar resources.)
The longer-term goals are laudable, but the company seems to seriously underestimate the difficulty of reaching lunar ice, harvesting it under extremely cold conditions, and producing propellant from ice. These are all significant engineering challenges in unprecedented conditions. Moreover, even under optimistic circumstances, NASA’s plans to return to the Moon wouldn’t put a handful of humans—let alone hundreds—on the lunar surface before the late 2020s, and China doesn’t intend for such landings until the early 2030s.