Monday, December 12, 2022

SpaceX Launches the Multinational Moon Mission

Early Sunday morning local time, a SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched a privately-developed Japanese Moon lander, Hakuto-R Mission 1, the Rashid lunar rover from the United Arab Emirates, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory cubesat called Lunar Flashlight on their way to lunar orbit. 

This isn't the first lunar mission for SpaceX, and most certainly won't be the last; their first launch to the moon was the Israeli corporation SpaceIL’s Beresheet Moon lander in 2019.  Unfortunately, Beresheet failed just a minute or two before touchdown, but the attempt was still a historic step for commercial spaceflight. 

Much like the CAPSTONE mission that traveled to its distant Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit from late June until mid-November, it will take Hakuto-R and Flashlight about four months to reach their final orbital insertion points (the Rashid Rover is mounted to Hakuto-R).  Both Spacecraft have been in contact with ground controllers and are reported to be in excellent shape, with JPL tweeting that yesterday (12/11) and iSpace reporting the same today (12/12)

If they make it that far, HAKUTO-R will conduct several more burns to reach low lunar orbit (LLO), where ispace will verify the spacecraft’s health and eventually attempt a soft landing on the Moon. A privately-developed spacecraft has never landed on an extraterrestrial body, so the prestige at stake is about as high as it can get. If JPL’s Lunar Flashlight spacecraft [PDF] survives its journey, it will enter a near-rectilinear halo orbit around a point of gravitational equilibrium (Lagrange point) between the Earth and Moon. Once on station, it will spend most of its time 9000 kilometers (~5600 mi) away from the Moon but occasionally fly within 15 kilometers (~9 mi) of the surface. Under JPL’s nominal mission plan, Lunar Flashlight will complete at least ten week-long orbits and use an infrared laser instrument to search for water ice in permanently-shadowed Moon craters during each close approach.

Lunar Flashlight illustration from JPL

An interesting aside of this mission is that as well as the Hakuto-R and Lunar Flashlight missions go together, their combination is actually a recent, accidental change.  Lunar Flashlight was intended to launch on the SLS/Artemis I that just completed its flight yesterday.  The constant delays in the Artemis I mission actually led to Artemis being filled with cubesats long ago - which seems to have killed about half of them.  

As a result, even though SLS lifted off for the first time in November 2022, its cubesat payloads had to be ready for launch and installed on the rocket in October 2021. Out of 14 planned payloads, four – including Lunar Flashlight – weren’t ready in time, forcing them to find other ways to deep space. Ironically, that may have been an unexpected blessing, as the ten payloads that did make the deadline wound up sitting inside SLS for 13 months, much of which was spent at the launch pad. Half of those satellites appear to have partially or completely failed shortly after launch.

If all goes according to plan, the Hakuto-R and Lunar Flashlight will get to the moon in mid-April.  This was SpaceX’s 56th successful launch of 2022 and the company’s second direct Moon launch this year after sending South Korea’s KPLO orbiter to the Moon in August.  After this mission and the preceding OneWeb mission's delays, SpaceX is getting ready for a strong close out to the month.  

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission, SWOT, is a science mission jointly developed by NASA and CNES, the French space agency, to measure how much water is in Earth’s oceans, lakes, and rivers.  That's scheduled to liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Thursday, Dec. 15th, at 6:46:40 AM EST; 3:46:40 AM PST.  After that, Spaceflight Now lists three more Falcon 9 missions with December targeted but not a specified date and time.  Those three would get SpaceX to an even 60 missions for the year.  

Sunday morning's Hakuto-R/Lunar Flashlight launch (the arc) and booster return to Landing Zone 2, close to the pad it lifted off from.  The straight line is the booster's Entry burn and the short arc is its Landing Burn.  The little curved light just past the end of the bright booster launch trajectory is the booster beginning its maneuvers to turn around and return to the launch site.  Richard Angle photo - who has some other cool pictures at the linked Teslarati article.


  1. The Japanese and NASA birds are taking the Gravity Assist method of getting to the moon, which of course takes time but requires much less energy (delta-V). Orbital Mechanics is FUN!

    1. When you consider CAPSTONE was launched by Rocket Lab's Electron, which is less than half the size of the Falcon 9, the idea has really taken off. Pardon the pun.

  2. A Japanese lander, and an Arab-driven rover?

    What's the over-under on how long before the Moon has its first vehicular collision?