The second half of the year has been a busy one for the Moon. Since late June, three US rockets have launched payloads to the moon, and another launched early Friday morning.
Across those 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 by the moon, enter orbit, or land there. The most notable of these, of course, is NASA’s Orion spacecraftwhich is scheduled to return to Earth on December 11th.
This marked a remarkable renaissance in lunar exploration. Keep in mind that from 1973 to 2022, NASA and the United States sent a total of 15 spacecraft to the Moon over 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 the Falcon 9 rocket, which is scheduled to launch at 3:37 a.m. ET (8:37 UTC) from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday. Its primary payload is a commercial spacecraft and lander known as the Hakuto-R mission, which is being developed by a Japanese company called ispace.
The mission was delayed a day after SpaceX said it needed time to perform “additional checks,” a slang term the company uses when it needs more time to address various launch technical issues. The relatively small lander will spend about three months following a long trajectory to reach the Moon, which will allow it to get there using the least amount of fuel.
With the Hakuto-R, ispace strives to become the first private company to successfully land a spacecraft on another world. And if the company succeeds, Japan will become the fourth country (after the United States, the Soviet Union and China) to land on the moon.
Landing on the moon is a huge challenge. In recent years, efforts by India and the Israeli-backed SpaceIL organization to produce a soft landing on the moon have failed.
Among the payloads being carried by the Hakuto-R lander is the Rashid lunar module, built by the United Arab Emirates. This rover is small, its mass is about 10 kg, and it will carry two high-resolution cameras as an experiment to study the viscosity of lunar dust.
More is coming
NASA is also sending a spacecraft to the Moon in this Falcon 9 launch as a secondary passenger. This small lunar flashlight mission, a suitcase-sized 6U CubeSat, is attached to a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, similar to private space. CAPSTONE spacecraft I entered earlier this fall.
The goal of this mission will be to search for ice on the moon. Four types of lasers will emit near infrared light which is easily absorbed by water ice. The more absorption observed in craters on the Moon, the more likely ice is to be present. This mission should help inform future efforts by robots and humans to explore ice deposits on the lunar surface.
As busy as this period has been for the Moon, there is a lot more to come. During the first half of 2023, two American commercial companies – Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic – are expected to 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 in the decade, of course, NASA is building the entire Artemis program around lunar exploration, including human missions and a possible settlement late in the decade. China is looking to spearhead an ambitious program to the Moon, too, with the prospect of landing its own astronauts in about a decade.
After 50 years, the moon has returned.