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Japanese Moon-Exploration Startup ispace to Launch Landers on SpaceX Rockets in 2020, 2021

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An artist’s illustration of the Japanese startup ispace’s lander and rover (on ramp) on the surface of the moon.

Credit: ispace

A Japanese company that aims to help humanity explore and settle the moon will fly its first two lunar missions with SpaceX.

The Tokyo-based startup ispace has contracted to launch its lunar lander and mini-rovers as secondary payloads atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets in 2020 and 2021, representatives of both companies announced today (Sept. 26).

"We share the vision with SpaceX of enabling humans to live in space, so we're very glad they will join us in this first step of our journey," ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada said in a statement. [Moon Base Visions: How to Build a Lunar Colony (Images)]

The two-phase first step is known as Hakuto-Reboot, or Hakuto-R for short. The name is a reference to Team Hakuto, an ispace-managed entrant in the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), a contest that promised $30 million in prizes for the first teams to successfully land privately built rovers on the moon. The GLXP ended earlier this year with no winners.

The 2020 ispace mission will be considered a success if the lander achieves lunar orbit, company representatives said. The following year, the goal is to put a lander down softly on the moon's surface, and to deploy data-gathering rovers from the craft as well.

Both of these missions — which ispace is bankrolling via its Japanese-record haul of more than $90 million in "Series A" investment funding — are technology demonstrations designed to lay the groundwork for the startup's ambitious future plans. Eventually, ispace aims to set up a robotic lunar transportation service and use its bantam rovers to identify and help exploit the resources available on Earth's nearest neighbor, such as water ice. 

For most of human history, the moon was largely a mystery. It spawned awe and fear and to this day is the source of myth and legend. But today we know a lot about our favorite natural satellite. Do you?

Full Moon over Long Beach, CA

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Moon Master: An Easy Quiz for Lunatics

For most of human history, the moon was largely a mystery. It spawned awe and fear and to this day is the source of myth and legend. But today we know a lot about our favorite natural satellite. Do you?

Full Moon over Long Beach, CA

0 of questions complete

Such work could help lead to the establishment of a permanent human settlement on the moon in the not-too-distant future, company representatives have said.

ispace also released imagery of its newly redesigned lunar lander and rover today. The company had previously stated that the lander will be capable of toting 66 lbs. (30 kilograms) of payload to the moon, and that the rover will be based heavily on the 9-lb. (4 kg) vehicle that Team Hakuto was planning to launch as part of the GLXP.

ispace isn't the only company interested in selling transportation services to the moon's surface and tapping lunar resources. For example, the plans of the American companies Astrobotic, Blue Origin and Moon Express all seem to overlap at least somewhat with those of ispace.

"We are entering a new era in space exploration, and SpaceX is proud to have been selected by ispace to launch their first lunar missions," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in the same statement. "We are looking forward to delivering their innovative spacecraft to the moon."

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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