A Japanese-made spacecraft carrying the Rashid rover from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will attempt to land on the Moon tomorrow. If successful, the HAKUTO-R 1 (M1) mission will be the first commercial mission to complete a moon landing and the first visit by both countries to the surface of the Moon.
So far, only government-led missions from the United States, the Soviet Union, and China have successfully landed on the Moon. The M1 lander, manufactured by the Tokyo firm ispace, is the first several commercial lunar voyages fly this year.
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M1 was launched on December 11, 2022 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and entered lunar orbit on March 21. The rovers on board will study lunar soil and geology in a previously unexplored location.
“It’s a new way of doing science on the Moon, a new way of doing business on the Moon too,” says Abigail Calzada Diaz, geologist and lunar exploration specialist at the European Resources Innovation Center. space in Esch-sur-Lune. Alzette, Luxemburg.
M1’s ultimate destination is the Atlas Crater, at the outer rim of the Moon’s Mare Frigoris (Sea of Cold). “This is an area that no previous lunar mission has explored,” says Hamid Al-Naimiy, an astrophysicist at the University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
The lander is scheduled to begin its landing sequence from an orbit at 100 kilometers altitude at 15:40 (UTC) on April 25. The ispace mission control team has a long list of procedures to follow before initiating the landing process. This includes checking the temperature and external conditions as well as the craft’s landing sensors and software, says Ryo Ujiie, chief technology officer at ispace.
To ensure a smooth landing, the spacecraft will activate its navigation sensor to adjust its altitude and speed, Ujiie explains. This carries an “unavoidable risk”, he adds, as this will be the first and only use of the sensor in a lunar environment.
If pre-landing checks indicate the spacecraft cannot land safely as planned, ispace says it could make further attempts on April 26, May 1 or May 3.
On landing, the machine will have to recharge its battery before deploying its two onboard rovers: the Rover Rashid, built by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) in Dubai, United Arab Emiratesand a two-wheeled robot built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
An artificial intelligence-enabled, multi-camera 360-degree imaging system aboard the M1 spacecraft, developed by Toronto, Canada-based company Canadensys Aerospace, will continue to capture images and monitor rovers after landing.
Once deployed, Rashid will roll a few hundred meters from the lander but will remain in the Atlas crater, says Sara AlMaeeni, Rashid’s communications system engineer. The rover, which is about 50 centimeters long and weighs just 10 kilograms, will use its microscopic camera to study lunar soil particles and use its thermal camera to scan the geological properties of the Moon’s surface.
JAXA’s baseball-sized robot will collect data from the Moon’s surface, including lunar sand known as regolith, that could help develop self-driving technology.
Understanding the geology of the Moon has always been an interest of lunar missions, explains Calzada Diaz. “But now there is an application for this knowledge,” she adds. “We have these resources on the Moon that we can actually use to make exploration easier and cheaper.” She says it might be possible “to extract oxygen from rocks, you can build structures with lunar soil, you can build rooms that maybe you need to fix something”.
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Data collected by the UAE rover will also help scientists study the solar system. “The lunar surface has a trace of the early solar system,” says Mounib El-Eid, an astrophysicist at the American University of Beirut. The Moon has no plate tectonics and has not been subject to surface erosions like the Earth, he explains.
The Rashid rover will also study lunar dust. “These are very powdery and have sharp edges, like glass, and can affect astronauts’ equipment and their spacesuits over time,” says AlMaeeni. Finding solutions to surviving lunar dust will be a key step in establishing permanent space stations on the Moon, she adds. The rover will perform material suitability tests. “This experiment will help us determine suitable materials for hardware in future lunar missions.”
The M1 lander will be turned off after dark on the Moon, 12 to 14 Earth days after landing. This will almost certainly mark the end of its mission: neither the M1 lander nor the Rashid rover are equipped to survive the low temperatures of the lunar night. “We expect the battery to fail during the second lunar day,” says AlMaeeni.
The mobile will send the data it collects to the MBRSC. “It will take months or years to analyze it,” says Al-Naimiy, president of the Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Sciences (AUASS).
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El-Eid hopes the UAE’s first lunar mission will boost research in the Middle East. The focus shouldn’t just be on “spending money to build rovers or spaceships, you have to do research with the data,” says El-Eid, who is Lebanon’s representative at AUASS. .
ispace is already working on its second and third lunar missions, targeting launches in 2024 and 2025 respectively. For Mission 2, “we will take our own little rover and we can do additional scientific research,” says Ujiie.