SpaceX and NASA targeting separate Moon launches days apart

NASA and a SpaceX customer have announced plans to launch two independent lunar missions within days of each other next month.

October 12, NASA has confirmed that it will launch its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to its LC-39A pad at Kennedy Space Center for the fourth time as early as Nov. 4. Barring any surprises, the rocket’s next launch attempt is scheduled for no earlier than (NET) 12:07 a.m. EDT (5:07 p.m. UTC), November 14. SLS is responsible for launching an uncrewed prototype of NASA’s Orion crew capsule en route to the Moon, where the spacecraft will attempt to enter lunar orbit and perform tests before returning to Earth.

On the same day, Japanese startup ispace confirmed that HAKUTO-R M1, its first commercial lunar lander, is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket between November 9 and 15. While NASA has a $73 million contract with ispace to develop a second-generation SERIES-2 lunar lander in the United States, the first-generation HAKUTO-R program has been an almost entirely private enterprise. The first M1 lander will attempt to deliver two rovers and several other commercial and government payloads to the surface of the Moon.

ispace’s first HAKUTO-R lunar lander. (ispace)
NASA’s first SLS Moon rocket. (Richard Angle)

As of 2020, HAKUTO-R is expected to weigh approximately 1,050 kilograms (~2,300 lb) at launch and has been designed to land up to 30 kilograms (~66 lb) of usable payload on the Moon. ispace designed and built most of the lander’s structures, but contracted with Europe’s ArianeGroup to supply the propulsion system and fully assemble, integrate and test the lander in Germany.

According ispace documentation [PDF], Falcon 9 will launch HAKUTO-R into a “supersynchronous” Earth orbit, where the lander will check its systems before possibly using its own propulsion to extricate itself from Earth’s gravity and into that of the Moon. He expects a nominal transit from Earth orbit to the lunar surface to take at least 20 days. The lander is designed to survive up to 12 days on the Moon, during which it will attempt to operate its onboard experiments, deploy its two tiny rovers, and transmit all collected data back to Earth.

Artist’s impression of HAKUTO-R on the Moon. (ispace)

The startup initially [PDF] described its agreements with SpaceX as contracts to launch two landers as secondary payloads on two Falcon 9 rockets. In its press releases, ispace no longer specifies whether the one-ton spacecraft will be the only payload on Falcon 9. HAKUTO-R M1 may be a secondary payload during SpaceX’s launch of the Eutelsat 10B geostationary communications satellite, which is currently scheduled NET on November 11. In a rare move, SpaceX will would have spent Falcon 9’s reusable first stage booster during the mission, leaving a lot more performance on the table.

ispace has raised around $210 million since its inception in 2010 – coincidentally the same year the US Congress forced NASA to start developing the SLS rocket. 12 years later, it is possible that the first launches of SLS and HAKUTO-R will occur hours apart.

When it rolls out next month, NASA’s SLS rocket will head to the launch pad for the fourth time. SLS and Orion had a less than smooth journey to their first launch, enduring half a decade of delays and running 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 complete assembly of SLS and Orion and begin testing the integrated rocket.

Since the start of integrated testing in April 2022, SLS has undergone five Wet Wear Repeat (WDR) tests published in April, June and September. It also attempted to launch twice on August 29 and September 3, although both attempts were arguably a continuation of WDR testing in all but name. But it looks like when the rocket rolls out for the fourth time, NASA will finally have finished nearly all the testing it should have done before loudly proclaiming its “Mega Moon Rocket” was ready for launch in August.

Early SLS launch will almost certainly take precedence over any other launch from Cape Canaveral around the same time, including HAKUTO-R M1, but SpaceX could potentially launch the lunar lander about a day before or after the moon rocket from NASA.

SpaceX and NASA targeting separate Moon launches days apart

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