SpaceX, NASA set separate lunar launch targets several days apart

NASA and SpaceX customers have announced plans to launch two unrelated lunar probes next month. On October 12, NASA confirmed that it would launch a fourth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at the Kennedy Space Center LC-39A pad as early as November 4. Surprisingly aside, the rocket’s next launch attempt is scheduled for no later than 14 November (NET) 12:07 AM EDT (17:07 UTC). The SLS is tasked with launching an unmanned prototype of NASA’s Orion crew capsule en route to the moon, where the spacecraft will be tested before it enters lunar orbit and returns to Earth. On the same day, Japanese startup ispace confirmed that its first commercial lunar lander, the HAKUTO-R M1, will be launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket between November 9-15. Although NASA awarded a $73 million contract with ispace to develop the second-generation SERIES-2 lunar lander in the United States, the first-generation HAKUTO-R program was almost entirely a private effort. The first M1 lander will attempt to deliver two rovers (one built by Japan and one built by the United Arab Emirates) and several other commercial and government payloads to the lunar surface. ispace’s first HAKUTO-R lunar lander. (ispace) NASA’s first SLS lunar rocket. (Richard Angle) As of 2020, the HAKUTO-R is expected to weigh approximately 1050 kg (~2300 lb) at launch and is designed to land up to 30 kg (~66 lb) of usable payload on the moon. ispace designed and built most of the lander structure, but contracted with ArianeGroup in Europe to provide the propulsion system in Germany and to fully assemble, integrate and test the lander. According to ispace’s docs: [PDF], Falcon 9 will launch the HAKUTO-R into “supersynchronous” Earth orbit, and the lander will eventually use its own propulsion to check the system before pushing itself out of Earth’s gravity and into the moon. We estimate that a nominal transfer from Earth’s orbit to the lunar surface would take at least 20 days. The lander is designed to survive on the moon for up to 12 days, during which time it attempts to conduct onboard experiments, deploy two small rovers, and transmit all collected data back to Earth. An artist’s impression of the HAKUTO-R from the moon. (ispace) initial start [PDF] The contract with SpaceX was described as a contract to launch two landers as auxiliary payloads for two Falcon 9 rockets. In the press release, ispace no longer specifies whether the 1-ton spacecraft will be the only payload for the Falcon 9. The HAKUTO-R M1 has the potential to become a secondary payload when SpaceX launches its current Eutelsat 10B geostationary communications satellite. NET scheduled for November 11th. Rarely, SpaceX will consume Falcon 9’s reusable Tier 1 boosters during missions, leaving much more performance on the table. ispace has raised approximately $210 million since its inception in 2010. Coincidentally, in the same year, Congress forced NASA to start developing the SLS rocket. After 12 years, the first launches of the SLS and HAKUTO-R are likely to occur hours apart. When launched next month, NASA’s SLS rocket will be heading to the launch pad for the fourth time. SLS and Orion had a rough road to their first launch, delayed by five years, and spent tens of billions of dollars over budget as a result. After all the parts arrived in Florida, it took NASA and its contractors about 12 months to finish assembling the SLS and Orion and begin testing the integrated rocket. Since integration testing began in April 2022, the SLS has undergone five wet dress rehearsal (WDR) tests, unveiled in April, June and September. It also attempted two launches on August 29 and September 3, but both attempts were a continuation of WDR testing in every way except for the name. But when the rocket launches for the fourth time, it appears that NASA has finally completed almost all the tests it had to finish before loudly declaring that the “Mega Moon Rocket” was ready to launch again in August. The SLS launch debut will almost certainly take precedence over other Cape Canaveral launches around the same time, including the HAKUTO-R M1, but SpaceX could potentially launch a lunar lander a day or so before or after NASA’s lunar rocket. SpaceX, NASA set separate lunar launch targets several days apart
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