SpaceX customer iSpace updates Falcon 9-launched Moon lander, rover plans

Japanese commercial space company iSpace has provided an updated schedule for its first private missions to the Moon, both set to launch on Falcon 9 rockets and land on the Moon as early as 2021 and 2023.

iSpace’s goal is to understand and map lunar resources (particularly water ice) and eventually gather and process those materials into resources that could help enable far more ambitious lunar exploration, up to and including a partially self-sustaining lunar outpost capable of supporting astronauts. Known as Hakuto-R (“white rabbit” reboot), iSpace began as a team pursuing the Google Lunar XPRIZE before its cancelation in 2018 after several postponements pushed competing teams well past the prize deadline.

Despite the death of the Lunar XPRIZE, iSpace managed to not only survive but thrive in a more entrepreneurial environment. The company managed to convince several major investors of the potential value of commercial space exploration and became one of a select few spaceflight startups – certainly the only space resources startup – that has raised almost $100 million.

Relative to similar startups Planetary Resources (purchased by a blockchain company; effectively dead) and Deep Space Industries (acquired by Bradford Space), iSpace is in an unprecedentedly healthy position to realize its space resource ambitions.

NewSpace, OldProblems

One could likely climb to the Moon with nothing more than a printed stack of all the studies, analyses, white papers, and hollow promises ever published on the utilization of space-based resources, an ode to the simultaneous promise and pitfalls the idea poses. As many have discovered, developing the ability to acquire, refine, and sell space resources is one of the most long-lead problems in existence. Put another way, funding a space exploration company on the promise of (or income from) space resources is a bit like paying for a solid-gold ladder by selling the fruit you needed it to reach.

For such an enterprise to make economical sense, one must either have access to ladders that are cheaper than their weight in gold or be able to sell the harvested fruit at breathtaking premiums. The point of this analogy is to illustrate just how challenging, expensive, and immature deep space exploration is relative to the possible resources currently within its grasp. There is also a bit of a circular aspect to space resource utilization: to sell the resources at the extreme premiums needed to sustain their existence, there must be some sort of established market for those resources – ready to purchase them the moment they’re available.

To build a market on space resources, one must already possess space resources to sell. This is the exact thing that government space agencies like NASA should develop, but entrenched and greedy corporate interests have effectively neutered NASA’s ability to develop technology that might transcend the need for giant, ultra-expensive, expendable rockets.

In-situ construction and resource utilization is the obvious draw, but it often happens to be the case that the company gathering the resources is the one most likely to need or want to use them.

The need to secure funding via investors – investors expecting some sort of return – is the biggest roadblock to space resource utilization. Really, the only conceivable way to sustainably raise funding for space resource acquisition is to already have a functional and sustainable company as a base. SpaceX is a prime example: the company hopes to fund the development of a sustainable city on Mars with income from its launch business and Starlink internet constellation.

A steel Starship on the Moon. (SpaceX)
SpaceX is focused on Mars but still has some interest in lunar activities, pending customer interest and demand. (SpaceX)

Ambitious plans, solid funding

Given all of the above, it’s extremely impressive that iSpace has managed to raise nearly $100M in just a few years and has done so without the involvement of one or several ultra-wealthy angel investors. Of course, it must still be acknowledged that the cost of iSpace’s longer-term ambitions can easily be measured in the tens of billions of dollars, but given an extremely lean operation and rapid success, $100M could plausibly fund at least one or two serious lunar landing attempts.

In the realm of flight tests, iSpace previously planned to perform a demonstration launch in 2020, in which a simplified lander would be used to orbit the Moon but not land. In the last year or so, the company has decided to entirely forgo that orbital test flight and instead plans to attempt a Moon landing on its first orbital flight, scheduled to launch on Falcon 9 no earlier than (NET) 2021. If successful, this inaugural landing would be followed as few as two years later (2023) by a lander and a lunar rover. Assuming a successful second landing, iSpace would move to ramp its production rates, launch cadence, and general ambitions, prospecting all over the Moon in 5-10+ separate lander missions.

iSpace is particularly interested in exploring the Moon’s caverns, lava tubes, sinkholes, and skylights, all shielded from sunlight and thus prime locations for water ice. (iSpace)

iSpace will still face the brick wall that all space resource companies eventually run into. Even if the company can successfully demonstrate a Moon landing and resource prospecting, it will need additional funding (and thus a commercially sustainable plan to sell investors on) to continue work and eventually, just maybe, get to a point where selling space-based resources can become a sustainable source of income.

Regardless of iSpace’s long-term business strategy, the early 2020s will be jam-packed with attempted commercial lunar landings, including Hakuto-R, Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and perhaps several other companies’ attempts. By all appearances, the exceptional mix of high performance and low cost offered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will serve as a major enabler, allowing companies to put most of their funding into their landers instead of launch costs.

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SpaceX customer iSpace updates Falcon 9-launched Moon lander, rover plans
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