TOKYO, Dec 11 (Reuters) – A Japanese space startup launched a spacecraft to the moon on Sunday after several delays, a step toward what would be a first for the nation and for a private company.
ispace Inc’s HAKUTO-R mission lifted off without incident from Cape Canaveral, Fla., after two delays caused by tests of its SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
More than a hundred people at a viewing party in Tokyo roared with applause as the rocket was fired and lifted into the dark sky.
“I’m so happy. After repeated delays, it’s good that the launch is right today,” said Yuriko Takeda, a 28-year-old worker at an electronics company who joined the meeting.
“I have this picture of the American flag from the Apollo landing, so although this is just the launch, the fact that it’s a private company going there with a rover is a very significant step.”
The national space agencies of the United States, Russia and China have achieved soft landings on Earth’s nearest neighbor in the past half century, but no company has succeeded.
The success of the mission would also be a milestone in space cooperation between Japan and the US at a time when China is becoming increasingly competitive and travel on Russian rockets is no longer available following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It will also limit a number of space-filled days for Japan, after billionaire Yusaku Mazawa revealed on Friday the eight crew members he hopes to take on a SpaceX flight to the moon as early as next year.
The name HAKUTO refers to the white rabbit that lives on the moon in Japanese folklore, as opposed to the Western idea of a man in the moon. The project was a finalist in the Google Lunar XPRIZE before being re-established as a commercial venture.
Next year is the Year of the Rabbit in the Asian calendar. The vehicle, assembled in Germany, is expected to land on the moon at the end of April.
The company hopes this will be the first of many deliveries of government and commercial cargo. The iSpace craft aims to put a small NASA satellite into lunar orbit to search for water deposits before touching down in the Atlas Crater.
The M1 lander will deploy two robotic rovers, a two-wheeled baseball-sized rover from the Japanese space agency JAXA and a four-wheeled Rashid rover made in the United Arab Emirates. It will also carry an experimental solid-state battery made by NGK Spark Plug Co (5334.T).
“The Rashid rover is part of the ambitious space program of the United Arab Emirates,” said the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the vice president of the United Arab Emirates and who watched the launch at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center.
“Our goal is to transfer knowledge and develop our abilities and add a scientific mark in the history of mankind,” he tweeted.
Privately funded iSpace has a contract with NASA to transport cargo to the moon starting in 2025 and aims to build a permanently manned lunar colony by 2040.
Report from Rocky Swift and Tom Bateman in Tokyo Gaida Gantos in Dubai; Edited by William Mallard
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