SpaceX is readying a Falcon 9 rocket for launch on early Wednesday morning. The mission, featuring both private and public payloads, exemplifies the current state of the spaceflight industry and the changing manner in which we’re exploring space.
Update: November 30, 11:01 a.m. ET: SpaceX had to move the launch to Thursday, December 1 to “allow for additional pre-flight checkouts.”
Original post follows.
It’s a fairly routine launch for SpaceX, but the mission packs a big punch. Packed aboard the Falcon 9 rocket is ispace’s Hakuto-R spacecraft, which is itself packed with an assortment of goodies bound for the lunar surface. Also on board is NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Lunar Flashlight, a Moon-bound probe that will hunt for water ice from the vantage point of a rarely used orbit.
The Falcon 9 is set to launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 3:39 a.m. ET on Wednesday, November 30. Should the launch have to be scrubbed, a backup opportunity is available on Thursday at 3:37 a.m. ET. The live broadcast should start 15 minutes before liftoff, which you can watch at SpaceX, YouTube, or at the live stream above.
The Falcon 9 first stage will attempt a vertical landing on Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station approximately eight minutes into the mission. Deployment of the Hakuto-R spacecraft is slated to occur at the 46-minute mark, with Lunar Flashlight deploying six minutes later.
The launch itself is not a big deal, but it carries historic consequences. Hakuto-R, a product of Tokyo-based ispace, will attempt to deploy the company’s Mission 1 (M1) lander to the lunar surface. Should Hakuto-R M1 land safely and soundly, ispace will become the first private company to accomplish this feat. A successful mission would kickstart a new era, one in which commercial providers routinely deliver goods to the Moon. Indeed, ispace’s Hakuto-R Mission 1 is the first of what the company hopes will be many low-cost deliveries to the lunar surface.
The Hakuto-R M1 lander will perform exploratory duties as a stationary probe, but it will also attempt to deliver several payloads to the surface, including the 22-pound (10-kilogram) Rashid rover built by the United Arab Emirates and a transformable ball-like robot, named SORA-Q, developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the TOMY toy company.
Other Hakuto-R payloads include an AI-powered flight computer from the Canadian Space Agency, a lunar camera developed by Canadian company Canadensys, a solid-state battery, a CD containing the song “SORATO” performed by Japanese band Sakanaction, and panel engraved with the names of crowdfunding supporters. The Hakuto-R M1 lander is expected to land within the Moon’s Atlas crater in April 2023.
Hakuto-R M1 is not the first attempt by a private company to plop a lander on the Moon. That distinction goes to Israel’s SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, which, with support from the Israeli Space Agency, attempted to place the Beresheet lander on the Moon in 2019. Unfortunately, computer glitches and communications problems led Beresheet to crash onto the lunar surface. The United States, the Soviet Union, and China have all managed to get landers safely to the lunar surface, but those were public space missions.
The Falcon 9 will also launch JPL’s Lunar Flashlight, a probe that’s designed to work from a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re thinking of NASA’s CAPSTONE probe, which recently became the first satellite to work in NRHO. CAPSTONE is setting the stage for a future space station, called Gateway, but Lunar Flashlight is on a different mission.
More on this story: NASA Probe Will Hunt for Lunar Water Where ‘Nobody Else’ Has Looked
The suitcase-sized probe will come to within 9 miles (15 kilometers) of the lunar south pole along its highly eccentric orbit, from where it will search for water ice in permanently shadowed craters. Lunar Flashlight will use four infrared lasers to shine beams of variously colored light in wavelengths that can be absorbed by surface water ice. The more absorption that’s observed, the greater potential there is for ice to exist on the surface.
“We are bringing a literal flashlight to the Moon—shining lasers into these dark craters to look for definitive signs of water ice covering the upper layer of lunar regolith,” Barbara Cohen, Lunar Flashlight principal investigator at NASA, said in a statement. “I’m excited to see our mission contribute to our scientific understanding of where water ice is on the Moon and how it got to be there.”
Like I said, lots to unpack with this launch. It all gets started, fingers crossed, early tomorrow morning with the unassuming launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.