Is a new space race about to burst into life?

15th November 2018
Lucy Johnston

Fifty years ago, the US astronaut William Anders – aboard Apollo 8, on the first manned orbit of the moon – captured what has since been declared ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’. The image, known as Earthrise ( a half-illuminated blue marble rising above the curved horizon of the moon’s surface, floating in rich velvety blackness.


This first colour image of the Earth from afar captivated the imaginations of generations back home and sparked dreams of space exploration that have influenced our culture ever since.

A great many manned space missions followed, through the golden years of the moon landings. But then industry interest in lunar exploration dwindled due to the huge costs and minimal commercial benefit and, in the five decades since Earthrise, only a total of 24 men have ever visited the moon, or even travelled beyond low Earth orbit.

However, this could all change very soon. Renewed interest in interplanetary exploration, and the potential commercial opportunities this offers, is fast gaining traction, fuelled by substantial private investment, a new breed of flexible, entrepreneurial tech companies, and giant leaps in technological advancement and accessibility.

Nasa has revealed plans to collaborate with international partners and return to the moon within the next decade, with a new manned space station that will orbit the Earth’s only natural satellite. The big kid on the block is proposing that this Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will enable astronauts to conduct renewed lunar research into possible resources and commercial opportunities. The Gateway project will also provide an environment where humans can train and develop the survival skills required for future missions into deep space, including the first manned missions to Mars. But while this gargantuan Nasa project is in development, other nimble, independent companies are hard at work developing impressive private research missions to the moon and beyond.

One of the leading contenders is ispacea lunar exploration company headquartered in Japan. Proving to be a highly popular feature when showcased in FOS Future Lab at this year’s Festival of Speed, ispace has a vision to ‘expand our planet, expand our future’ through developing the infrastructure for a near-future existence where the Earth and moon become one sustainable ecosystem – supported by, and supporting, a new space-based economy. 

ispace's incredible vision, which started life as a Google Lunar XPrize entry, and is currently funded through a $90m Series A investment round, is focused on developing networked micro-robotic systems that aim to deliver on the potential for a moon-based economy, which they are calling Moon Valley. Sharing a vision with high-profile industry figures such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, ispace sees the moon not just as a destination in itself, commercially rich in mineral resources, but as a stepping stone for further interplanetary travel. The huge amounts of lunar ice recently confirmed would, of course, provide water, but could also be converted to hydrogen (for fuel) and oxygen (for life), and would enable the moon to become a highly advantageous pitstop for astronauts and spacecraft en route to deep space.

The first step of the groundbreaking ispace mission, named HAKUTO-R, focuses on sending a lunar exploration rover, to conduct data-gathering missions. Designed to overcome extreme environmental factors, and weighing just 4kg, this small-but-perfectly-formed robotic vehicle has benefitted from a number of consumer off-the-shelf components for weight and cost reduction. The reinforced body and rugged suspension system are constructed from lightweight carbon-fibre, and is coated with silver and teflon, adapting to a temperature range of –40℃ to 100℃.

This rover will be partnered by a lunar lander – currently in development at ispace HQ – which will provide both stable delivery of the rover to the moon’s surface, and a reliable communications conduit between the Earth-based team and the rover while it is exploring. Communication will naturally be the lifeline of the mission, so the rover’s robust, hybrid system enables both high-speed and long-distance communication. Multiple cameras will capture 360° HD imagery, which will be transmitted in near-real-time back to Earth, and will also be used to monitor the terrain and driving conditions, while an infrared sensor will also detect obstacles.

With its technology development nearing completion, ispace is now considering the next critical element – the Earth launch infrastructure. Last month the company announced it has selected SpaceX to safely take its technology into orbit, and has purchased payload space on two Falcon 9 rocket launches in mid-2020 and mid-2021. 


Takeshi Hakamada, ispace founder and CEO, explains that the company selected SpaceX as launch provider in part because of cost efficiency, but also because SpaceX’s high flight rate gives the company a number of windows of opportunity to launch. Because ispace is aiming to provide a frequent lunar transportation service, starting relations with SpaceX is very important, he stresses.

The purpose of these first two HAKUTO-R missions is to prove the technology – the first launch will demonstrate that they can successfully orbit the moon, while the second will show that they can safely land the rover and transmit reliable communications.

“Within the next five years, we will have completed our first two lunar missions,” Hakamada tells GRR. “We will have demonstrated our technology to the world, and begun subsequent lunar missions carrying customer payloads to the moon, thus establishing the infrastructure for a high-frequency lunar transportation system.”

And, during this time, its fleet of rovers will also collect a substantial amount of data from the lunar surface, expanding its understanding of the volume and state of the water resources available, and how this could impact on the next stages of constructing Moon ValleyThe shape this takes is very much still on the drawing board, but habitation of our furthest city yet, and proven sustainability of a lunar-based economy, supported by ispace's logistics system, is expected by 2040.

Hakamada concludes: “The Earth is really a two-planet system, but we’ve only ever thought of it as one. If we’re going to extend human presence into space, it makes sense to begin with the moon.”

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