Japan announces plans to send an astronaut to the moon, Europe prepares to dispatch a rover to Mars, SpaceX unveils updates to its plans, and the successful launches of heavy rockets. Space Exploration Weekly Highlights

A Giant Leap for Japan

The first non-American astronaut to set foot on the moon will be a Japanese. The announcement by the U.S. President Joe Biden came during a White House meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The two leaders formalized agreements on cooperation in several domains, including a Japanese partnership in NASA's Artemis program, which aims at returning humans to the lunar surface. As part of the collaboration, Japan will provide an airtight, air-filled wheeled vehicle for lunar activities, enabling astronauts to operate within it without space suits. Reflecting on the enduring ties between the two nations, Biden said  "Those ties stretch up to the moon, where two Japanese astronauts will join future American missions, and one will become the first non-American ever to land on the moon.”

The agreements between the two nations primarily focused on defense and security, including collaboration in the production of air defense systems. Notably, the leaders concurred on the joint establishment of a low-orbit satellite network for detecting hypersonic and other missiles.

Japan has made notable strides in its space endeavors in recent years, with the unmanned landing of the SLIM spacecraft earlier this year marking its success as the fifth country to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon. Despite having flipped during landing, the spacecraft remained operational and even communicated several times with its operators on Earth after having endured lunar nights.

The lunar cooperation agreements were signed by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Japan's Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Masahito Moriyama. While the agreements did not specify in which Artemis missions the Japanese crew will participate, their placement appears contingent upon the progress of the lunar rover's development, which is to be operated by the Japanese team. Toyota is developing the rover in partnership with the Japanese Space Agency, and according to plans, it is anticipated to reach the moon by 2031 and partake in the Artemis 7 mission and subsequent endeavors.  However, potential delays in the Artemis program by several years are probable. The lunar rover's development is projected to cost several hundred billion yen, translating to hundreds of millions of dollars.

"[The rover] is a mobile habitat, it's a lunar lab, a lunar home and a lunar explorer. It's a place where astronauts can live, work and navigate the lunar surface, leading to magnificent discoveries for all of us," said Nelson. "The pressurized rover will be a powerful contribution to the overall Artemis architecture as Japan and the U.S. go hand in hand with international and industry partners to the lunar surface and beyond," added Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of Japan Aerospace Exp[loration Agency (JAXA).

 The United States will not walk on the moon alone. Statement by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, following the signing of the agreement with Japan (in English):

The European Mars Rover Returns to the Spotlight

The European Space Agency (ESA) has allocated more than half a billion euros to a consortium led by the space corporation Thales Alenia, to resume work on the ExoMars mission, which aims to deploy a European rover on Mars, an initiative previously halted approximately two years ago. The rover, named Rosalind Franklin in tribute to the British Jewish scientist pivotal in unraveling the structure of DNA, was originally scheduled to be launched in September 2022 atop a Russian Proton rocket. However, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the European Union suspended collaborative efforts with Moscow, and the already completed rover was placed in storage.

The newly assigned budget is designated for the development of several systems originally intended to be provided by Russia for the collaborative project. These include a Martian landing system and a heat shield crucial for atmospheric entry. This initiative will enable European companies to venture into the manufacturing of entry, descent, and landing systems (EDL). "The key aspect is that we develop new capabilities in Europe, industrial capabilities. EDL is a key topic,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA director of human and robotic exploration. He further added that these developments would not necessitate significant changes to the rover's existing structure.

Thales Alenia will also be responsible for assessing the rover's operational readiness following two years of storage and for conducting comprehensive system evaluations. They will also build an infrared radiation spectrometer to bolster the rover’s capabilities for material composition analysis and assessment. The rover is equipped with a robust drill capable of penetrating two meters beneath the Martian surface and of extracting samples, in an attempt to search for signs of ancient microbial life on the neighboring planet.

The mission is also a collaborative effort with NASA, which will provide the spacecraft with braking engines to enter Mars' atmosphere, and a nuclear generator to power the rover's surface systems. NASA is also expected to fund the launch of the spacecraft with the rover to Mars from U.S. soil. As of now, the launch is planned for the end of 2028, but the company that will execute it has not yet been selected.

Intended to search for signs of life that may have existed on Mars in the past. The European rover Rosalind Franklin | Visualization: ESA

The Goal: Ten Daily Flights to Mars

Elon Musk, the American entrepreneur, founder and CEO of SpaceX, presented his updated vision for the company's Mars missions at the end of last week, following the initial three test flights of the Starship systems. Musk's vision includes utilizing massive spacecraft and powerful launch rockets, as well as a strategy for complete recycling of these components to reduce launch costs as much as possible.

Speaking to SpaceX employees, Musk introduced the next generation of Starship, which is expected to be operational after the test flights. This spacecraft will be capable of transporting more than 100 tons of cargo to low Earth orbit. He also introduced the next generation, Starship-3, featuring an even larger spacecraft capable of transporting more than 200 tons to such an orbit, alongside the upgraded version of the engines, Raptor 3,  that will power both the launch vehicle and the spacecraft. 

SpaceX is also advancing technology to refuel spacecraft in Earth's orbit. Musk's strategy involves launching cargo-rich spacecraft into low orbit, refueling them there, and then propelling them towards Mars at the optimal time. This strategy could facilitate the transportation of 250,000 tons of equipment, cargo, and eventually humans to Mars during each launch window, occurring biennially every 26 months.  Musk envisions that within two decades, this initiative could establish an autonomous colony on Mars independent of Earth.

According to Musk, mass production of spacecraft and launch rockets will reduce the cost of launches into Earth orbit to tens of dollars per kilogram,compared to the current rate of around $2,000. Such a reduction could catalyze a transformative shift in human space endeavors, with flourishing research, scientific exploration, industrial ventures, and even space tourism.

The vision: to settle a million people on Mars. A Mars colony established through mass production and launch of Starship spacecraft | Concept: SpaceX

Four, Five... Blastoff

The veteran Delta IV rocket has completed its journey after many years of successful service. The rocket, by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) was launched for the last time this week, placing a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) into space. This marks the 44th launch of the Delta IV rocket over a span of more than two decades and the 16th launch of the Heavy configuration designed for large payloads. With the exception of a partial failure during its maiden voyage, all launches have ended successfully. Originally scheduled for launch two weeks prior, the last launch was postponed at the last minute due to a technical malfunction.

Delta IV rockets are single-use vehicles, with their first stages or boosters not subject to reuse. These powerful rockets have launched notable payloads, such as the Orion spacecraft on its inaugural test flight in 2014, and the Parker Solar Probe for solar research in 2018, among others. The Delta IV Heavy, along with the Atlas V rocket—which is also nearing retirement—will be succeeded by ULA's latest development, the Vulcan Centaur rocket. The inaugural launch of the new rocket was very successful earlier this year, although the spacecraft it carried did not reach the Moon due to a fuel leak.

On Thursday, Russia also celebrated the successful launch of the heavy Angara A5 rocket, launched for the first time from its new spaceport Vostochny Cosmodrome, in Russia's Far East. Although an experimental launch of this rocket took place a decade ago, it has only been launched twice since, with this week's launch expected to pave the way for more frequent deployments for placing satellites and other payloads in space.

Although two days before the launch the countdown was stopped at the last moment due to malfunctions, Thursday's launch proceeded smoothly. The rocket carried an experimental payload, likely not an operational satellite, and the Russian space agency confirmed its placement into orbit as planned. The Angara A5 stands at an impressive height of 55 meters and can deliver nearly 25 tons of payload into low Earth orbit with the assistance of boosters.


The Russian Ministry of Defense is also involved in the development of the heavy launch rocket. Launch of Angara 5 from eastern Siberia, April 11, 2024:


Translated with the assistance of ChatGTP. Revised, expanded and edited by the staff of the Davidson Institute of Science Education