SpaceX will launch two spacecraft to the moon tonight
It was a busy second half of the year for the Moon. Since late June, three U.S. rockets have launched payloads to the moon, and another is scheduled for early Friday morning.
In those four launches — two on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, one on Rocket Lab’s Electron and one on NASA’s Space Launch System — there were a total of 15 spacecraft sent to fly to, orbit or land on the moon. The most notable of them, of course, is NASA’s Orion spacecraftwhich is due to return to Earth on December 11.
This represents a remarkable renaissance in lunar exploration. Consider that from 1973 to 2022, NASA and the United States sent a total of 15 spacecraft to the Moon over a period of five decades. Now, thanks to a mix of commercial, academic and government payloads, US rockets will launch 15 spacecraft to the moon in about five months.
Next up is a Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to lift off at 3:37 a.m. ET (8:37 UTC) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday. Its primary payload is a commercial spacecraft and lander known as the Hakuto-R mission, developed by a Japanese company called ispace.
The mission was delayed a day after SpaceX said it needed time for “additional checks,” a general term the company uses when it needs more time to address various technical issues with a launch. This relatively small lander will spend about three months following a long trajectory to reach the Moon, allowing it to arrive there with a minimal amount of fuel.
With the vehicle, Hakuto-R ispace aims to become the first private company to successfully land a spacecraft on another world. And if the company succeeds, Japan will become the fourth country (after the United States, the Soviet Union and China) to land on the moon.
Landing on the moon is a big challenge. In recent years, efforts by India and an Israeli-backed organization, SpaceIL, have failed to make a soft touch on the moon.
Among the payloads carried by the Hakuto-R lander is the Rashid lunar rover, which was built by the United Arab Emirates. It is a small rover with a mass of about 10 kg and will carry two high-resolution cameras as an experiment to study the stickiness of lunar dust.
There is more
NASA is also sending a spacecraft to the moon on this Falcon 9 launch as a second passenger. This tiny Lunar Flashlight mission, a briefcase-sized 6U CubeSat, is aimed at a nearly rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, similar to that which the private CAPSTONE SPACECRAFT entered earlier this fall.
The goal of this mission will be to search for ice on the Moon. Four lasers will emit near-infrared light that is easily absorbed by water ice. The greater the absorption observed in craters on the Moon, the more ice there is likely to be. This mission should help inform future robotic and human efforts to explore lunar ice deposits.
As busy as this period has been for the Moon, there is much more to come. In the first half of 2023, two commercial US companies – Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic – are expected to attempt to land on the moon for NASA. India, Japan and possibly even Russia also plan to launch missions to the moon in 2023.
Later that decade, of course, NASA builds its entire Artemis program around lunar exploration, including human missions and the possibility of a settlement later that decade. China is also seeking to lead an ambitious program to the moon, with a possible landing of its own astronauts in about a decade.
After 50 years, the moon returns.