Landing a lunar rover payload on the Moon is an expensive and risky venture. Trying to create revenue streams from this sort of activity is arguably even riskier.

For Tokyo-based ispace, the challenges are many, and Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, is well aware that to make this company a viable enterprise, proper planning is paramount.

“We expect to generate revenue during our first two missions [in 2020 and 2021]. Revenue will come from customer payloads and corporate partnerships,” Hakamada told Asia Times. “The current challenge is a lack of sustainable demand. Rather than pursuing an existing market, we are creating a brand new market.”

And that is less a blue ocean, more black space. “We foresee the demand growing significantly in the near term, and continuing to expand exponentially moving forward,” he added.

Space shots go commercial

Though it has not generated the kind of publicity that the space race did in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, a new Moon race is on. This time, though, it is not national governments, but private organizations and commercial businesses that make up the field.

Israel’s SpaceIL became the first private venture to launch a lunar lander on February 22. Launched on a SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral, it will take 3 months to reach the Moon and is expected to land its unmanned lunar rover in mid-April.

California-based SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, has completed multiple successful commercial launches. Among other achievements, his is the first rocket company to land its spent booster rockets back at the launch site in order to reuse them.

Discussing the SpaceIL mission, John Horack, an aerospace engineer at Ohio State University and a spaceflight expert, told NBC News that: “Nothing like this has been tried before. We are looking at an entirely new model for space exploration beyond Earth orbit.”

Commercializing space may be new, but ispace is not. It was created as the only Japanese team – named “Team Hakuto” at the time – in the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP) competition which started in 2007.

GLXP was a Google-funded contest which drew privately funded teams of space researchers from many nations. To win the multi-million-dollar first prize, a team had to land a rover on the Moon, and while moving across the lunar surface, the rover had to beam live video and data back to Earth. GLXP got underway in 2007 but was finally cancelled in early 2018 after the deadline for finalists to achieve the ultimate objective had been extended several times.

Now, however, it is all systems go.

Next year, ispace will launch Japan’s first private sector lunar test mission. Its lander will be placed in a lunar orbit and then relay data back to the Earth. A second planned mission in 2021 will land a spacecraft – with a rover aboard – onto the Lunar surface. In 2022, ispace intends to conduct seven missions focusing on creating an Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure while undertaking a search for polar water sources.

Monetizing the Moon

The question is how to profit from Moon landings. ispace intends to provide three services: lunar payload delivery; data collection and sales; and R&D and brand-partnership opportunities.

“We can develop lunar landers and rovers, which will carry customer payloads to the lunar orbit and lunar surface,” Hakamada said. ispace has already purchased a launch [aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for the first mission] and secondary payload space.

“Customer payloads are integrated into our lander and rovers ahead of launch,” Hakamada explained. “Once in Earth orbit, our lander uses propulsion to transfer to the lunar orbit and then performs a landing on the lunar surface, where it deploys the rovers.”

The rovers are designed to capture lunar imagery and map terrain, but most importantly will be seeking water resources. The presence of water on the Moon would be a significant support for the establishment of some kind of manned outpost in the future.
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“This data can be sold to customers who are planning to conduct their own lunar missions,” said Hakamada.

R&D collaborations and brand marketing opportunities are two further revenue streams. Hakamada envisions ispace, “…testing customer technology on the Moon, and providing benefits to brands – such as mission-naming rights, logo placement and rights to create original content about our campaign.”

Ambitious? Perhaps. But ispace has made considerable progress in establishing itself as a viable commercial enterprise.

In late 2017, it raised $90.2 million, with Suzuki Motor and Japan Airlines among its investors. Tokyo-based Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co Ltd. (MSI) has also joined this list. MSI and Ispace intend to develop a lunar insurance service that can contribute to and support a sustainable lunar economy.

Another new member on the list of backers is Nagoya-based NGK Spark Plug Co Ltd. NGK wants to trial – for the first time ever – new solid-state battery technology on the Moon in 2021. The goal is to test how well this new technology performs in extremely cold temperatures.

Japan has been interested in space travel for years. Here, a project manager speaks at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Sagamihara City on February 22 about the Hayabusa 2 mission to land on an asteroid and collect samples. Photo: AFP / Yomiuri Shimbun

Partnering with NASA

And last November, ispace announced that it would partner with Cambridge Massachusetts-based Draper, one of nine US companies selected by NASA to participate in NASA’s new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Draper has plentiful experience in the sector: It created the computer guidance systems that enabled NASA’s Apollo Moon landings.

Over the coming decade, the nine US companies and their partners will be allowed to bid on contracts worth an estimated $2.6 billion. CLPS encompasses many aspects of lunar transport including NASA payloads hitching a ride on commercial rovers for the collection and return to Earth of lunar samples.

“We have entered an exclusive long-term partnership with Draper in which they will provide our Guidance, Navigation & Control (GNC) technology for the first five years of ispace’s commercial missions, beginning 2021,” said Hakamada. “Draper is recognized as the world’s premier institution and expert in this field.”

Draper serves as the US-based prime contractor for a proposed commercial lunar lander. ispace will be the design agent for the project.

According to Mike French, senior vice president for commercial space at Bryce Space and Technology in Virginia, ispace’s partnership with Draper substantially upgrades ispace’s commercial potential, as it allows Ispace to compete for NASA’s CLPS program, which will fund lunar missions of ispace’s class.

“The CLPS program is likely the most significant steady source of near-term revenue for lunar services in this class,” French said. “ispace would not have been able to participate in this program as a non-US company, making the partnership particularly important for it.”

Still, ispace is up against some stiff competition as it seeks to attract paying customers and create viable and sustainable revenue streams. Other GLXP finalists, including US firm Moon Express and India’s Team Indus have announced aggressive timetables.

But with the Moon open for business, the race is on. “Going back to the Moon with commercial technology opens the floodgates,” Grant Anderson, co-founder of Paragon Space Development Corp told Space News recently.