Google Lunar XPRIZE: Asia’s Teams Shoot For The Moon

Three teams from Asia are racing to win in the 2016 Google Lunar XPRIZE competition.

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AsianScientist (Jun. 13, 2016) – Competition has always been a driving force in aerospace. I’m not referring to competition in the marketplace—although it is indeed a key driver in innovation—but to actual contests, with competing teams and cash prizes.

Take for example the Orteig Prize. In 1919, hotelier Raymond Orteig offered US$25,000 to the first aviator to fly from Paris to New York (or vice versa). That prize was claimed in 1927 by Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis. This demonstration opened up the trans-Atlantic flight routes for civil aviation.

Fast forward nearly seven decades to 1996, when Peter Diamandis announced the X-Prize contest. This competition hoped to spur innovation in spaceflight by inviting non-governmental entities to attempt two sub-orbital spaceflights within the space of two weeks. The idea of the dual flights was to demonstrate re-usability for the spacecraft in question.

Like the Orteig Prize before it, there was a wait of nearly eight years before anyone would claim that prize. The prize money of US$10,000,000 was eventually claimed by legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan with his SpaceshipOne design. Upon winning, the design and rights to SpaceShipOne were immediately purchased by Sir Richard Branson—thus forming the technological base for his newly-announced Virgin Galactic company.

The commercialization of space had begun.

Race to the moon v2.0

Since then, the X-Prize Foundation has launched (pun intended) a series of other high profile contests designed to push the envelope of technical capability in a number of areas. One particular contest of note is the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP).

Announced in 2007, the GLXP’s main objective is to see a team land a rover on the Moon’s surface, travel more than 500 meters in any direction, and transmit high-definition imagery from the surface of the Moon. A cash prize of US$20 million will be awarded for the first team to achieve this. For the second team to achieve these goals, a prize of US$5 million will be awarded.

In addition to the main prizes, there are a series of other goals and prizes up for grabs, including cash incentives for photographing Apollo mission hardware (with the aim of shutting the Moon Hoaxers up once and for all—a noble goal indeed).

The slogan of the GLXP is “Back to the Moon. For Good,” which is a reference to the fact that humanity has kind of lost interest in lunar exploration since the Apollo days. It is hoped that the GLXP will reignite the interest in lunar exploration and spur new innovation in this field, much the same way that the Orteig Prize did.

When GLXP was announced, 31 teams sent letters of intent, expressing interest in entering the contest. Of those 31 teams, 20 registered, including three from Asia.

Now, as the contest heats up, the total number of contenders have dropped down to 16, with the three Asian teams remaining in the game: Team Indus from India, Team Hakuto from Japan and Independence X from Malaysia. Let’s take a look at the Asian entries in a little more detail:

  1. Team Indus, India (Lander and two rovers)

    First up is Team Indus, led by IT professional Rahul Narayan. Team Indus has already claimed a US$1 million prize in 2015 for proving the viability of their landing system through simulations and a demonstration.

    In terms of hardware, Team Indus will be launching their entry on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, an expendable launch system developed and operated by the Indian Space Research Organization. Once it reaches lunar orbit, they will deploy a lander to the Moon’s surface where two rovers will be released.

    The first rover will focus on the grand prize: attempting to traverse the 500 meter distance and transmit HD images back to Earth. The second rover will attempt to satisfy the secondary prize requirements through tasks such as range and endurance.

    As of 2016, Team Indus is the favorite for reaching the Moon first.

  2. Team Hakuto, Japan (Two rovers: Moonraker and Tetris)

    Next up is Team Hakuto, led by Takeshi Hakamada of Tohoku University. Team Hakuto has already claimed US$500,000 for demonstrating the mobility of their two rovers, named Moonraker and Tetris. The rovers are notable for their use of space-rated, 3D-printed thermoplastic wheels.

    Team Hakuto will be aiming for the grand prize in addition to secondary prizes for range. In addition to the cash incentive, the Hakuto rovers aim to descend into lunar lava tubes in order to explore the underground caverns and assess the suitability for future underground habitats.

    How will they achieve this? The two rovers are tethered together—Moonraker will remain above the surface and will lower Tetris down with that tether. That is why the latter rover is named as Tetris!

    Unlike Team Indus, the Japanese rovers will not be arriving on a Japanese lander but will be ride-sharing to the Moon’s surface with the American Astrobotic team.

  3. Team Independence-X, Malaysia (One rover: BLIZZARD)

    Last up, and by no means least, is Team Independence-X, who are based in Malaysia. Unlike the two other Asian teams, Independence X will be sending a single rover named BLIZZARD. Lead by Mohd Izmir Yamin, an aerospace engineer, Independence-X is the only entry from Southeast Asia.

    BLIZZARD is a small rover and can fit inside a 1.5U CubeSat, a type of miniaturized satellite that measures 15cm x 10cm x 10cm. Featuring caterpillar tracks as its means of locomotion, BLIZZARD has the capability to self-right itself in the event of getting stuck in the Lunar regolith.

    The lander itself was developed by Independence-X, and is well-equipped to ensure a smooth, autonomous landing—there is still some lag experienced when communicating with the Moon, so fully autonomous systems are required for critical phases.

So there you have it. The Asian teams are definitely in it to win it, having come so far through the contest and with two teams claiming milestone prizes already.

I guess my final thoughts on this subject would revolve around the importance of competitions, not just within aerospace, but in science and engineering in general. Having participated in a couple of reasonably prestigious contests myself, I can testify for the value of such endeavors, not just in terms of innovation but for the individual team members themselves. Nothing says “Hire me” quite like a good contest victory. (Undergrads take note!)

The deadline for contenders to achieve their goals has been extended to December 31, 2016, and so we should be seeing some very cool images sent back from the Moon very soon.

This article is from a monthly column called Final Frontiers. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Source: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Team Hakuto.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Phillip Keane has a bachelor degree in aerospace engineering from Coventry University, UK, and an MSc in Space Studies from International Space University in France. He loves all things space and science fiction.

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