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SpaceX Launches Japanese Startup Ispace’s Lunar Lander to Moon

(Bloomberg) -- A Japanese lunar lander carrying two rovers and other payload lifted off via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Sunday, in a bid to become the first commercial spacecraft to land on the moon.

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The launch of Tokyo-based ispace Inc.’s Hakuto-R lander from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida followed two postponements. Originally scheduled for late November, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. had stood down twice for additional pre-flight rocket checks.

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The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander — Japan’s first-ever lunar lander to launch — will take a circuitous path to the moon and is expected to touch down inside the Atlas crater around the end of April. It carries two rovers — one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Rashid rover from the United Arab Emirates — as well as an experimental solid-state battery from NGK Spark Plug Co., a music disc containing the song SORATO played by Japanese rock band Sakanaction and other cargo.

The escalating US-China space rivalry and Elon Musk’s ambitious Mars program have spurred startups around the world to chase new contracts for tapping resources on the lunar surface and further out in space.

Like Musk’s goal to build a colony on Mars, ispace wants to build a human settlement of about 1,000 people on the moon by 2040, and the company plans to ferry equipment to the moon to make it a habitable commercial center.

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Ispace’s success would bolster Japan’s own space program. JAXA had contracted Mitsubishi Electric Corp. to build the country’s first lunar lander for a possible 2019 launch, but that program has been mired in delays. Last year, Japan’s Lunar Industry Vision Council recommended more cooperation between state and private sectors to maintain competitiveness in the budding space economy.

Ispace’s lander is part of a $73 million NASA contract won by a team led by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Draper to provide end-to-end delivery services under the US Artemis moon program. The same rocket also launched the NASA probe Lunar Flashlight on a mission to look for ice in craters on the moon.

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