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Japanese companies are planning to kick-start the lunar economy by backing a local startup’s mission to land on the moon by 2020.

A Tokyo-based company, Ispace Inc., said it raised 10.2 billion yen – about $90 million(US) – from some of the country’s biggest businesses, including Japan Airlines Co. and television network Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings Inc. The funds will be used to send a spacecraft into lunar orbit by 2019, and then land on the Moon one year later. 

Private companies are playing a bigger role in space development, from Elon Musk’s rocket launcher Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and asteroid miner Planetary Resources Inc., seeking to deliver humanity to the cosmos while securing a return for their shareholders. 

Ispace Inc. says a that thriving lunar economy is still decades away, but it is putting profits and corporate projects at the heart of its missions in the coming years.

“Human beings aren’t heading to the stars to become poor,” Takeshi Hakamada, chief executive officer of Ispace Inc., said at a press event in Tokyo. “That’s why it’s crucial to create an economy in outer space.”

Not all of Ispace Inc’s investors are corporations. Government-backed Innovation Network Corp. of Japan is the leading investor in the round with 3.5 billion yen, while Development Bank of Japan also invested an undisclosed amount.

Ispace Inc. also said the initial business opportunity is mostly in marketing, including slapping corporate logos on its spacecraft and rovers and delivering images to be used in advertising. A successful landing will also let the company offer what it calls a “projection mapping service” – a small billboard on the Moon’s surface. The startup says there will be demand from corporations looking to show off their logos with Earth in the background.

From 2021, Hakamada plans to land exploration vehicles that will search for water. That, in turn, can be turned into hydrogen fuel and ultimately perhaps support a lunar settlement.

Ispace Inc. estimates there are billions of tons of water on the moon, but hard evidence is lacking. Back in 2009, NASA researchers found molecules associated with water. This year, a study used satellite data to estimate that large amounts of water likely exist under the surface.

Ispace Inc. got its start through Google’s Lunar Xprize, a competition sponsored by Alphabet Inc. that will award $20 million to whoever can land and drive a spacecraft on the moon’s surface. Established in 2007 with a target date of 2012 for the first mission, the deadline has been repeatedly pushed back as participants faced technical difficulties and financial challenges.

Hakamada said Ispace Inc’s goals are mostly independent of his efforts with Team Hakuto, his partner in Google’s competition. He says both projects will continue, but the funding round will seed development of a sustainable business.

Most companies in Google’s competition have similar plans, including Cape Canaveral-based startup Moon Express, which counts Chinese gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. among its investors.

Japanese companies have a history of fascination with space. In 2014, Otsuka Holdings Co. announced plans to deliver a can of its Pocari Sweat (that's right, Sweat, not sweet) drink to the moon’s surface. In 1990, TBS sent a journalist on a Soviet rocket to the Mir space station.

“Among Series A funding rounds, this one is the biggest ever for Japan and the biggest globally for a space-related startup,” Hakamada said.


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