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ispace Fails Moon Challenge but Gains Insight for Future Missions

ispace failed in its bid to become the first private company to land a craft on the moon, but it gained crucial data for future explorations.



Earth and the lunar surface as photographed from the ispace lunar module on April 20, 2023. (Provided by ispace)

In the early hours of April 26 (JST), the Japanese startup ispace announced that its unmanned lunar module failed to land on the moon.

The HAKUTO-R Mission 1 module is thought to have run out of fuel before landing due to an error in its altitude sensor. It crashed into the lunar surface before it could decelerate for a gentle landing. 

The world watched as ispace attempted the first-ever private moon landing. Although it didn't achieve its target, ispace managed to check off eight of its ten goals for this project. The collected data will also be beneficial for subsequent exploration plans.

Founded in 2010, ispace has offices in Japan, Luxembourg, and the United States with more than 200 employees worldwide. The startup's goal is to create cutting-edge technology for extracting lunar resources and providing transportation services between Earth and the moon. 

The lunar module was launched in December 2022 by a rocket developed by US venture SpaceX. It took around four and a half months to reach the moon. 

By taking a detour, the probe entered the lunar gravitational sphere without wasting fuel. ispace also reduced costs by designing a compact, lightweight probe. 

The result had not been announced at this point, but ispace employees could not hide their disappointment, Tokyo in the early hours of April 26, 2023. (© JAPAN Forward by Hidemitsu Kaito)

An Extraordinary Feat

The primary aim of HAKUTO-R Mission 1 was to land on the moon. Mission 2, slated for 2024, aims to collect data on the lunar surface using a rover. Furthermore, ispace plans to contribute to NASA's Artemis mission in 2025 by transporting cargo using a bigger lander.

A lunar rover developed by ispace, which will be mounted on the HAKUTO-R Mission 2 lunar module, taken on April 26, 2023. (© JAPAN Forward by Hidemitsu Kaito)

With each mission, ispace will amass a valuable database that can be used for commercial purposes and generate revenue. These include lunar flight technology, images of lunar topography, and geological data such as temperature and environment.

A lunar landing is an extraordinary feat — a one-shot attempt involving maneuvers that cannot be rehearsed on Earth. In fact, only three countries have succeeded in the past: the Soviet Union, the United States, and China. This time, ispace was unable to follow suit.

A model of the HAKUTO-R lunar exploration module by the private company ispace on April 26, 2023. (© JAPAN Forward by Hidemitsu Kaito)

The Rise of Private Companies in the Space Industry

The moon is the closest celestial body to the Earth. Therefore, it is believed that studying the moon will lead to greater knowledge of the Earth. It is a new economic zone that has sparked interest due to its potential for mining water and resources as well as image data collection.

According to a survey by a US financial institution, the space industry could surge to over $1 trillion USD by 2040.

In 2005, the US government entrusted the development of the Space Shuttle's successor to the private sector. From this point on, space development shifted from the government to the private sector. However, space projects are extremely expensive and the companies involved are responsible for financing them.

Japan's Space Resources Act grants companies ownership rights to resources extracted in space. Under this act, ispace became the first company to have its resource development plan approved. The company has also agreed to sell lunar sand to NASA.

International rules for space development have yet to be defined. For now, regulations are developed in tandem with space operations by countries and companies in the industry.

ispace lunar lander
The Earth is seen from the lunar lander. Taken with a Canadensys camera. (Provided by ispace.)

Business Opportunities in Space

There are business opportunities in various stages of the space industry, including launch, transportation, data collection, exploration, finance, and marketing. Many domestic and international corporations were involved in HAKUTO-R Mission 1 as well.

For example, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co, Ltd and ispace collaborated to create the world's first moon insurance coverage. It covers the entire operation from rocket launch to landing.

To raise capital, ispace went public on the Japanese stock exchange in April 2023. In addition, the company received loans from financial institutions and advance payments from client companies.

However, news of Mission 1's failure on April 26 caused sell orders of ispace stocks to flood the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and its share price plummeted to the lower price limit. 

As the private sector continues to pioneer space exploration, ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada is eager to try again. Future initiatives will likely pique global interest as ispace finds ways to leverage the valuable data and lessons gathered from Mission 1. 

Partners involved in the HAKUTO-R lunar exploration program, taken on April 26, 2023. (© JAPAN Forward by Hidemitsu Kaito)


Author: Hidemitsu Kaito

(Read the article in Japanese.)