WASHINGTON — Japanese lunar lander company ispace says it’s on track to launch its first mission in 2021 while supporting an American partner on potential NASA missions.
In an interview during the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here Oct. 23, Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive of Tokyo-based ispace, said the company was currently during structural testing for the first of its Hakuto-R series of landers it plans to fly to the moon.
“We’re going to start assembly next year of the flight model,” he said. “We are on schedule right now.”
That mission, known simply as Mission 1 or M1, will demonstrate the lander’s capabilities. Hakamada said ispace hasn’t selected a landing site for M1 but is considering several candidate locations.
A second mission, M2, will launch in 2023 to land on the moon and carry additional payloads, including a small rover that ispace is developing. Work on both missions, as well as their launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, is funded from $95 million the company raised in late 2017.
Besides its own lunar lander designs, ispace is also partnered with a team led by Draper that is one of the nine companies with Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts. They offer a lander based on ispace’s design, but assembled in the United States to comply with NASA requirements that landers be built domestically.
Draper was not selected for the first round of task orders, awarded to Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines in May. “We’re preparing for the next task order,” Hakamada said, adding that he expected it to be released in the near future.
Hakamada spoke at a press conference during the IAC where the company donated a small rover it previously built, called Sorato, to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. The rover was built by Team Hakuto, the Google Lunar X Prize competitor that became ispace. The team had hoped to fly the rover to the moon on landers developed by Astrobotic and, later, TeamIndus, but neither launched before the competition ended in early 2018.
Hakamada said ispace decided not to fly Sorato on its upcoming lunar lander missions because it’s updating the rover design that it will go on the M2 mission. “We are planning to upgrade our rover to meet business requirements,” he said, such as standardized interfaces for payloads it will carry and improved power and communications.
Sorato will ultimately go on display in a new gallery focused on the future of spaceflight that the National Air and Space Museum plans to create as part a long-term renovation of the main museum building on the National Mall.
“What we hear from our visitors, when we do our visitor engagement surveys, is they want to learn more about the companies that have helped to shape spaceflight historically, and they want to be introduced to the new companies they see in the news,” Matt Shindell, lead curator for that new gallery. “We see this gallery as a place where those from all walks of life can engage with these stories and find their role in the future of spaceflight.”
The Sorato rover is one of the first items obtained by the museum for the gallery, he said. That gallery is scheduled to open in 2024.
Hakamada noted at the press conference that he was inspired to pursue lunar landers by the original Ansari X Prize, a $10 million suborbital spaceflight competition, including seeing the winning vehicle, SpaceShipOne, on display in the museum. “I’m personally very happy to be able to display our rover inside the same museum,” he said. “I hope Sorato will be seen as a symbol of the dawn of private space exploration for future generations that visit the museum.”