The Google Lunar XPrize this week announced the finalists for its global competition to land a privately funded unmanned lunar rover on the moon.
Of the original 16 entrants, the final list comprises five groups, including Team Indus of India and Hakuto of Japan, competing for US$30 million in total prize money including a Grand Prize of US$20 million.
To win involves not just a soft landing on the moon, but completion of several tasks, including deploying a rover that must successfully travel at least 500 meters on the moon surface while transmitting high-definition video and imagery back to Earth.
Then there are two so-called “Mooncasts.” The first must happen after the landing, while the second should follow completion of the 500-meter trip over the lunar surface.
Indus and Hakuto, which have already won up to US$1 million in so-called Milestone Awards for lander and rover designs, put an unexpected twist into the race known as GLXP in December when they announced they will share the same rocket. All launches need to be initiated by December 31, 2017.
“The Google Lunar XPRIZE has always pushed us beyond our limits” said Takeshi Hakamada, Hakuto’s team leader, in a press release. The plan is to continue the challenge and choose an optimal path to reach the Moon, he said.
The India and Japan teams along with the Israeli group known as SpaceIL, which has a launch contract with California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), are said to be frontrunners. Two US-based and highly-capable, multinational groups known as Moon Express and Synergy Moon round out the five teams.
If getting to the moon is not challenging enough, the data transmission segment is an additional difficulty. According to the official GLXP guidelines:
“Each Mooncast must contain eight minutes of video in both high definition (720p) and near real time transmitted as high priority that can be in a lower resolution, a panoramic photograph to give a 360° view of the arrival or mission completion site, images showing a substantial portion of the craft and payload, and set of data provided by XPRIZE including a video and audio message, an email, and a text message. Prior to their launch the team must submit technical details of their mission for review by the Judging Panel.”
A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation is scheduled to launch the Indus and Hakuto payloads from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. The landing site for Team Indus is the Mare Imbrium or Sea of Showers, which is a large flat plain.
Hakuto is made up of a group of Japanese space experts including several from a company called ispace Inc., along with various faculty members and students at Tohoku University.
GLXP senior director Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer endorsed the joint launch agreement by Indus and Hakuto stating one of the fundamental objectives of the GLXP is “to foster collaboration in the private sector.”
For the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, this will represent another opportunity to demonstrate its technical expertise and low-budget approach to space exploration that has achieved significant success.
ISRO’s track record on Mars exploration, for example, is hard to beat. Its Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan in September 2014 cost US$74 million, or about 10% of what NASA spent on a recent Mars mission. Beside the low cost, ISRO achieved all of its Mars mission objectives on the first attempt, something no other space agency has so far accomplished.
The Japanese team will be working closely with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a joint lunar radiation research project using Hakuto’s lunar micro-rover.
The goal is to refine JAXA’s real-time radiation monitoring by comparing the actual data obtained by the rover with JAXA radiation models. To date, JAXA research has been hindered by its access only to limited radiation data from the lunar transfer orbit and the surface. Hakuto will transport a portable space radiation monitor to the lunar surface to serve as the source for the necessary data.
Just last week, JAXA suffered a setback when it aborted a mission from its Uchinoura Space Center when an SS-520 rocket failed to achieve orbit while carrying a small earth observation satellite. After failing to receive telemetry from the launch vehicle, a decision was made to abort the second stage ignition and the SS-520 fell into the sea southeast of the Space Center.
This was followed a few days later by the successful launch of DSN 2, the first Japanese military communications satellite. Two more Japanese DSN satellites will be placed into orbit over the coming years, which underscores the country’s attempts to develop and deploy sophisticated and miniaturized payloads and spacecraft.