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Private Japanese Lander Sets Distance Record on its Way to the Moon

In December 2020, a private Japanese space company, ispace, launched its Hakuto-R lander atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, embarking on an ambitious test flight to the Moon. The lander has achieved a new milestone by setting a record of being the farthest privately funded and commercially operated spacecraft to travel into space by getting 855,000 miles (1.376 million kilometers) from Earth on Jan. 20. With the lander performing well in deep space, ispace representatives are optimistic about the mission's success, and if all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will arrive in lunar orbit in mid to late March and touch down in late April. A successful soft landing on the Moon would be a first for both the nation of Japan and a privately operated spacecraft, making it a significant achievement. Furthermore, this is not a one-off mission for ispace, and the company plans to launch robotic landing missions in both 2024 and 2025 as part of an ambitious effort to help humanity establish a sustainable economic footprint in Earth-Moon space.

The Journey So Far

The Hakuto-R spacecraft launched from Earth on Dec. 11, 2020, and has been making its way to the Moon ever since. The lander is taking a highly energy-efficient path to Earth's nearest neighbor, which is expected to result in reduced fuel consumption and lower costs. The spacecraft is equipped with operational payloads, including a tiny rover named Rashid for the United Arab Emirates' space agency. The primary objective of the mission is to achieve a soft landing on the lunar surface, and if successful, this would be a significant achievement for Japan and the private space industry.

Record-Breaking Distance

On Jan. 20, 2021, the Hakuto-R lander achieved a new milestone by getting 855,000 miles (1.376 million kilometers) from Earth, becoming the farthest privately funded, commercially operating spacecraft to travel into space. This is a significant accomplishment for ispace and the private space industry, as it demonstrates that privately-funded space exploration is making rapid progress. Although the CAPSTONE cubesat launched by the Colorado-based company Advanced Space has gone farther afield, reaching a maximum of 951,908 miles (1,531,948 km) from its home planet before arriving in lunar orbit last November, it is operated by NASA, making it a mission supported by the government, unlike the purely commercial effort of ispace.

Next Steps: Missions 2 and 3

The current mission is only a test flight, and ispace has ambitious plans for the future. The company aims to launch robotic landing missions in both 2024 and 2025, and many more after that as part of an ambitious effort to help humanity establish a sustainable economic footprint in Earth-moon space. ispace representatives have revealed some new details about the next two flights, known as Mission 2 and Mission 3, during a call with reporters.

Mission 2: Among other payloads, the lander will carry an experiment to split water on the lunar surface and a module designed to conduct the first food-production experiment on the Moon, using the micro-algae Euglena. Both of these payloads will be provided by Japanese companies.

Mission 3: This mission will feature some ridealong spacecraft to support communications on the far side of the Moon. The lander will deploy two communications relay satellites designed to remain in lunar orbit for multiple years.

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