A boxy, 7.5-foot-tall spacecraft is making its final approach to the moon, where it will make history—if it touches down safely. It’s poised to be the first commercial lander to set its robotic feet there, with competitors sure to follow.
The Tokyo-based company Ispace lofted its M1 lander on December 11, 2022. After tracing a roundabout, energy-efficient trajectory, it’s expected to reach the surface of Atlas Crater on the southeastern outer edge of Mare Frigoris at about 12:40 pm Eastern time Tuesday, which is 1:40 am Wednesday morning in Japan. (“Moon time” is not a thing yet.) Sticking the landing would make Ispace a leading player in a nascent lunar aerospace industry, as many companies, mostly based in the US, are planning their own landers, rovers, and payloads.
“We are the first commercial lunar lander, and I’m really happy with this,” says Ryo Ujiie, Ispace’s chief technology officer. “The important thing is to complete this mission and learn from it.”
Technically, Ispace isn’t making the first attempt to set down a private craft on the moon. In 2019, the nonprofit Israeli organization SpaceIL sent a privately funded lander called Beresheet, but it crashed, along with a payload that included human DNA samples and thousands of tardigrades, tiny “water bears” that can survive almost anywhere.
The Ispace lander comes equipped with a large, 400-Newton thruster and six additional thrusters, enabling a controlled descent to the surface. With those thrusters, the navigation system, and four landing legs, Ujiie hopes the craft will achieve a soft touchdown. The company chose its landing site so that engineers at mission control in Tokyo will be able to maintain visual contact and communication with the lander.
While this mission is a technology demonstration, M1 will arrive carrying payloads, including 360-degree cameras from a Canadian company and rovers from the Japanese space agency and the United Arab Emirates.