Hopes Growing for New Private-Sector Space Development

A Japanese space startup took on the challenge of the world’s first private-sector lunar landing. Although it ended in failure, the attempt nonetheless left the impression that the era of private-sector leadership in space development is here to stay.

The lander of the Japanese space company ispace Inc. began its descent to the moon’s surface, but the company lost contact with it immediately before the planned touchdown. It is believed to have crashed on the surface of the moon.

The lander was launched in December last year and had been in space on its way to reaching lunar orbit. This alone is enough to say that the startup has accomplished a difficult project.

Even though the most difficult part of the mission — landing on the moon — did not go well, the lander collected navigational data until the very last moment before the crash. The company may have been able to gain valuable experience.

The lander was carrying a small spherical exploration robot whose developers included toy manufacturer Tomy Co., as well as a rover from the United Arab Emirates. It is regrettable that this hardware could not be seen in action on the moon.

In the past, only three countries — the Soviet Union, the United States and China — have successfully landed their spacecraft on the moon. Israel and India have also failed. No private company has ever landed its spacecraft on the moon, so a successful landing by ispace would have been a global accomplishment.

The employees of ispace are a multinational group of young people, and the lander’s engines and control system were adapted from proven products from Europe and the United States, according to the startup.

It is noteworthy that ispace procured the necessary personnel and equipment from around the world and developed this new project with its base in Japan. This should be a great stimulus to corporate culture in Japan, which is considered closed and not prone to technological innovation.

Regolith — lunar matter resembling sand or dust — would have accumulated on the landing equipment, and it was planned for ispace to sell the regolith’s ownership rights to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The company said the aim was to establish the precedent of a commercial transaction involving materials on the lunar surface, and for Japan and the United States to take the lead in establishing international rules for that purpose in the future.

The enactment of the Space Resources Law in Japan allowed ispace to operate on the moon. There is a fear of future conflicts of interest among countries over mineral resources and water on the moon. The challenge will be to create international rules that will enable smooth business activities on the moon while preventing arbitrary behavior there.

If the Artemis manned lunar exploration program led by the United States, in which Japan also will participate, goes into full swing, lunar base construction and resource development will advance. The private sector will surely have more opportunities to play an active role.

Looking ahead to next year or later, ispace is already preparing for the launch of its second moon-bound spacecraft. The latest endeavor was made possible through the cooperation of many private companies. It is hoped that the private sector will continue to expand the possibilities of space development, while cherishing such a momentum and utilizing lessons learned from this setback.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 27, 2023)