The Moon is (soon to be) open for business

Ispace, a commercial venture that counts Dentsu among its strategic partners, today announced it's one step closer to putting a lander on the lunar surface next year – with brand sponsors along for the ride.

Ispace's lunar lander: could be launched in the second half of 2022
Ispace's lunar lander: could be launched in the second half of 2022

Ispace, one of a handful of commercial entities racing to be the first non-government entity to put a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, announced in Tokyo this morning that it has begun final assembly of its lunar lander.

This engineering milestone means that test models of the craft have passed key stress tests, the company said. Assembly of the actual flight craft will now proceed at an Ariane Group facility in Germany. If all goes well, the lander will travel to the US and launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 in the second half of 2022.

Also today, the company announced details of how two of its brand partners, Citizen Watch and NGK Spark Plug, are participating in the first mission.

Dentsu is an investor in and strategic partner of Ispace, playing a role that includes lining up commercial partnerships and helping those partners activate their investments. 

Ispace's as-yet-unnamed lander is part of the company's Hakuto-R lunar exploration program, which also includes a second mission currently slated for 2023. Those two missions, in turn, are just the first of many the company hopes to carry out as part of an ambitious vision to build a thriving commercial ecosystem around lunar exploration and eventually habitation. 

Dentsu's involvement and the "Hakuto" name date back to when an Ispace team became one of five finalists in the Google-sponsored Lunar X Prize competition, which ended without a winner in 2018. Hakuto means "white rabbit" and refers both to folklore interpretations of the patterns on the Moon's surface and that team's four-wheel rover design. The newly added '-R' refers to a "reboot" of the team's ambitions. 

More than lunar logo exposure

Hakuto-R has eight partners in place, with one top-tier spot and two second-tier spots remaining available. Partners in addition to Citizen and NGK include Japan Airlines, Suzuki Motors, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, Takasago Thermal Engineering, Sumitomo Corporation, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and SMBC Nikko Securities. Dentsu is looking for partners among its clients not only in space-related fields but sectors such as power and energy, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and even FMCG, Kae Masuhara, senior solution director in Dentsu's Solution Creation Center, told Campaign Asia-Pacific.

"There are four points that we can provide to clients," she added. "One is joint technology development. Second is production of original videos, graphics and so on. And third is going to be events and campaigns. And fourth is the brand exposure."

Aaron Sorenson, Ispace communications manager, stressed that the company is not looking for partners who merely want their logo on the lander. 

"Our company's whole vision is to try to incorporate non-space companies, or companies that are not traditionally involved in the aerospace sector, into the lunar industry," he told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "In the near term, a lot of the lunar activity will be governmental, for sure. But in the longer term, in order to sustain an economy on the Moon, and also expand human presence onto the Moon and deeper into space, the private sector is going to have to be deeply involved in things like construction and development and energy." 

NGK Spark Plug, with its solid-state battery technology, provides a good example of the partnerships Ispace tries to cultivate. "There's a big issue with batteries on the Moon because it's very cold during the lunar night," Sorenson said. Normal batteries like lithium-ion cells use liquid internally, which freezes and cracks such batteries at low temperatures. Lunar rovers like China's Yutu-2 use radioactive material to provide heat, but that approach comes with cost and risk. "A battery like NGK's solid-state battery could, in theory, overcome that issue by surviving the night because it doesn't freeze," Sorenson said. NGK's battery is slated to travel on the first Hakuto-R mission only as a demonstration; it's not playing a part in the lander's systems. 

Citizen Watch, by contrast, is contributing to the lander itself. The company's 'Super Titanium', a form of the metal that has been treated using proprietary processes to boost its surface hardness, will be employed in the lander's legs. In addition, the brand has introduced two Moon-themed wristwatches that have the Hakuto-R name, and in one case the lander shape, inscribed on the back. 

"We try to work with companies to identify what their inspiration is to enter the lunar industry, what kind of thing they can try to either contribute to our mission, contribute to the vision, or what they can do for their own business," Sorenson said. If successful, for example, NGK's test will provide a great proof-point for a battery technology that the company hopes to sell into applications in extreme Earth environments. 

Another partner, MS&AD Insurance Group, parent of Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, will be looking to develop insurance offerings for lunar endeavours—a necessity for other companies that will get involved in lunar activity in the future. While insurance coverage exists for rocket launches and satellites, none exists for activity in the cislunar space (between the earth and the Moon) or on the lunar surface.

"By being our partner, they're able to have more exposure and more detail into what it takes to have a lunar mission," Sorenson said. "What are the risks and challenges and costs and timeline? By having that insight and inside look, they'll be able to develop a policy that would be aligned with their customers' needs."

Most coverage of Ispace and its chief rivals, Germany-based PTS and US-based Astrobotic, focuses on which company will be the first to kick up lunar dust with a successful landing. Sorenson, however, downplays the importance of that race.

"For us, it's not really important about being first," he said. "It's important to be sustainable." While the first Hakuto-R mission is already underway, the second one is also in being prepared to take place quickly after that. The company's goal from the outset, Sorenson said, has been to set a high-frequency cadence of missions. The Hakuto project during the X Prize era was all about being first. "But now it's more about making a business. It's not about being first but rather being sustainable—being someone who can make a longer-term business and also create the industry."

To that end, Ispace yesterday joined a consortium of corporations, legislators and academics called the Lunar Industry Vision Council in submitting a white paper to Japan's Minister of State for Space Policy, Inoue Shinji. The paper calls on the government to help foster the development of a lunar business ecosystem in Japan

A version of this article originally appeared on Campaign Asia

Topics