Sending cargo to the Moon: how private companies are making it easier

Japanese company ispace is on track to carry out the first commercial cargo mission to the Moon

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Private companies are making travel to the Moon easier for space agencies and researchers looking to send cargo to the lunar surface.

They are taking over the difficult part of Moon missions by developing landers and technology that help achieve the complicated process of a lunar landing.

This allows scientists and engineers to focus on the science objectives during the mission.

Several companies have won contracts to deliver cargo to the lunar surface within the coming years for different countries.

In the case of private companies, I only need to focus on building my experiment and the company will deliver the payload to the Moon rather quickly
Dimitra Atri, astrophysicist at New York University in Abu Dhabi

Japanese lunar exploration company ispace is on track to carry out the first commercial cargo mission to the Moon when it launches this month.

It will be delivering payloads from multiple countries, including rovers from the UAE and Japan and artificial intelligence technology built by a Canadian company.

US-based company Astrobotic plans to launch its Peregrine lander in early 2023, with payloads from eight countries.

Dimitra Atri, an astrophysicist at the New York University in Abu Dhabi, said this business model also benefits scientists.

Dimitra Atri a research scientist at the NYU Abu Dhabi's Centre for Space Science, said partnerships between governments and the private sector also benefit scientists. Photo: Dimitra Atri

“If I want to carry out a scientific experiment on the Moon, I will have to design the entire mission, propose it to a space agency, and the launch will be in about a decade from conception,” he told The National.

“In the case of private companies, I only need to focus on building my experiment and the company will deliver the payload to the Moon rather quickly.

This is more cost-effective and will create opportunities for scientists in an emerging space sector such as the UAE, Mr Atri said.

“Small missions can be carried out on two-to-three-year time scales, at a much lower cost – the UAE’s Rashid rover being a prime example.”

Landing on the Moon is no easy task and about one-third of missions fail.

Only the US, the former Soviet Union and China have achieved soft landings on the lunar surface.

Most recently, landers by India and Israel crash-landed on the surface.

“Landing on the Moon is very difficult because, unlike Earth or Mars, it does not have an atmosphere, so parachutes cannot be deployed to slow down the spacecraft,” said Dr Atri.

“Instead, one has to carry out very complex manoeuvres using thrusters, which is technologically challenging and there is no room for error.

“India and Israel’s recent attempts to land on the moon failed because of minor errors.”

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Apart from delivering cargo, companies are also looking to win contracts from space agencies in space mining – a process where space resources are collected and ownership is transferred.

ispace and three other companies have been contracted by Nasa to collect regolith, or lunar soil, during their mission and then transfer ownership to the space agency.

On Tuesday, ispace announced that it received a licence from the Japanese government to carry out ‘business activity' on the lunar surface, so the regolith collection and ownership transfer can take place.

“If ispace transfers ownership of lunar resources to Nasa in accordance with its plan, it will be the first case in the world of commercial transactions of space resources on the Moon by a private operator,” said Sanae Takaichi, Japan’s Minister of State for Space Policy.

“This will be a groundbreaking first step toward the establishment of commercial space exploration by private operators.”

The Mission 1 lander will collect lunar soil on the footpad of the landing gear during touchdown.

It will photograph the collected regolith and will then carry out an ‘in-place’ transfer of ownership to Nasa.

This will make the lunar soil property of Nasa under the Artemis programme, a project by the space agency that aims to build a long-term presence of astronauts on the Moon.

Private companies will be playing an important role in the Artemis programme, including Elon Musk's SpaceX.

The company won a $2.89 billion contract in 2021 to develop the first commercial human lander that will carry the next two American astronauts to the lunar surface.

Updated: November 14, 2022, 9:54 AM