Japan's ispace aims to be 'gateway' for lunar business activity

 Toyota-backed startup offers new data service and raises $28m for 2022 landing

TOKYO -- Japanese startup ispace has launched a data service aimed at helping companies pursue business opportunities on the moon, part of the lunar rover developer's aim to become a "gateway" for commercial space activities.

The Tokyo-based startup says it will collect lunar data, including images, environmental data, telemetry and resources information, and provide them to potential customers including government space agencies, universities and private companies for mission planning and lunar surface development.

Ispace aims to become the first private venture to reach the moon, with its first landing mission planned in 2022. Interest in space-related business opportunities, including those on the moon, has been strong in Japan.

The company hopes to become a "gateway [by] helping companies design a blueprint for lunar market entry," said Takahiro Nakamura, chief operating officer of ispace.

The service will include applications that allow businesses to perform virtual simulations to help them understand how structures, such as rovers, mining equipment or habitation units, will perform in the lunar environment.

One potential customer ispace has its eye on is Toyota Motor, which is developing a fuel cell-powered lunar rover with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, for its planned manned mission in 2029.

Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, has said his startup could perform preparatory work for the JAXA-Toyota mission.

Toyota is now officially backing ispace through an investment fund run by Sparx, an investment. The startup said on Thursday that it has secured 3 billion yen ($28 million) in series B funding, including from the Sparx fund, bringing its total funds raised to 13.5 billion yen.

Sparx's space frontier fund was launched in June with funding from Toyota and Japan's top three banking groups. Toyota said at the time that the investment is partly motivated by its desire to give society hope amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Ispace says that the new funds will be used for the final development of its lunar lander and for the predevelopment of its next lander mission, planned for 2023.

Despite widespread excitement regarding space exploration -- triggered in part by the success of American space venture SpaceX -- the business model for lunar exploration has remained uncertain. Ispace itself had been dependent on government contracts, such as NASA's commercial lunar payload services, or CLPS, a program that awards contracts to companies like ispace that provide transport services for lunar exploration.

The new data business is a first step toward creating a commercially viable business out of lunar exploration.

"We expect this business, and the payload business, to be an important earnings driver in midterm," COO Nakamura said.

The lander ispace is developing will be 2.3 meters tall, 2.6 meters wide, and 340 kg in weight, with a target payload capacity of 30 kg. It will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9. The payload capacity will eventually be raised to 100-150 kg.

Ispace says frequent, low-payload flights will allow it to provide low-cost delivery of research instruments and building materials, in order to support the gradual development of large-scale lunar infrastructure over the next decade.

While the company plans to offer delivery and data services, however, ispace says its "final objective is to engage in lunar resource utilization," such as discovering water resources that are believed to exist on the moon and that could be used as fuel for rockets and as oxygen for people to live in space.


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