It’s been a busy second half of the year for the Moon. Three US rockets have launched payloads to the moon since late June, with another scheduled for early Friday morning.
During these four launches — two on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, one on Rocket Lab’s Electron, and one on NASA’s Space Launch System — a total of 15 spacecraft have been sent to fly past the moon, into orbit. or land there. The most notable of these, of course, is NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which will return to Earth on December 11.
This represents a remarkable renaissance in lunar exploration. Recall 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, which will launch Friday at 3:37 a.m. ET (8:37 UTC) from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The primary payload is a commercial spacecraft and lander known as the Hakuto-R mission, which was developed by a Japanese company called ispace.
The mission was delayed a day after SpaceX said it needed time for “additional checks,” a generic term the company uses when it needs more time to resolve various technical launch issues. This relatively small lander will follow a long trajectory for about three months to reach the moon, allowing it to arrive there with minimal fuel.
With the Hakuto-R vehicle, ispace aims to become the first private company to successfully land a spacecraft on another world. And if the company is successful, Japan would become the fourth country (after the United States, 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 landing on the moon.
One of the payloads carried by the Hakuto-R lander is the Rashid lunar rover, which was built by the United Arab Emirates. This is a small rover, weighing about 10 kg, and will carry two high-resolution cameras as an experiment to study the stickiness of lunar dust.
More to come
NASA is also sending a spacecraft to the moon during this Falcon 9 launch as a secondary passenger. This small Lunar Flashlight mission, a briefcase-sized 6U CubeSat, is on its way to a nearly rectilinear halo orbit around the moon, similar to the one entered by the private CAPSTONE spacecraft earlier this fall.
The purpose of this mission is 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 aid 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 make an 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 this decade, of course, NASA is building its entire Artemis program around lunar exploration, including human missions and the possibility of a settlement by the end of this decade. China also wants to lead an ambitious program to the moon, with the potential landing of its own astronauts in about a decade.
After 50 years, the moon is back.