Global Moon race in progress
May 25, 2017
The race is on to build a new industry for space. A US foundation is hosting a competition to develop a rover for use on the Moon, 380,000 kilometers away.
Thirty-four teams from the private sector are competing, including a group from Japan. And some big companies are funding the project, like the tech giant Google.
The contestants have 3 major challenges. First, they have to be able to land their rover on the Moon. Next, the rover must be capable of traveling a distance of more than 500 meters. Finally, it has to be able to transmit a high-resolution video or still image back to Earth.
The first team to complete the mission wins 20 million dollars in prize money.
The deadline for the launch is the end of this year. We took a look at the efforts of team Hakuto from Japan.
Team Hakuto's rover is built to be compact and light. It's just 58 centimeters long, and weighs in at four kilograms.
Team members are surprisingly young, mainly in their 30s, and of many nationalities. They also come from different backgrounds. One is a software developer, and another is a former engineer with an automaker.
Their workshop is a small room next to their office.
The rover is equipped with state-of-the-art technology. It has over 2,000 parts, all assembled by hand. Seventy percent of the parts come from commercial off-the-shelf products. This helps keep costs down.
Takeshi Hakamada is the head of team Hakuto. He is also the president of a startup that is seeking to develop new natural resources in space.
He decided to take part in this race to land a rover on the Moon as the first step for his space business.
"What's attractive about space is that it has no industry yet," says Hakamada. "By developing natural resources there, we can create an economy. I wish to create a place for people to live in space."
He traces his thoughts to his experience studying in the United States. There he encountered a way of thinking based on the idea that superior technology means nothing if it does not create business opportunities.
Hakamada's team began developing the rover seven years ago.
The first version had a hard time moving over slopes. It was nowhere near the level of tackling the rough terrain of the Moon.
Later, the team transferred its base to the robot laboratory at Tohoku University.
After creating several models, the team managed to improve the rover's mobility and heat tolerance.
As word spread about the design, close to 30 firms offered to provide funding and technology.
Team Hakuto is now in the final stretch of developing the rover.
Newsroom Tokyo science reporter Hajime Okada covered the story. He joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio to talk about the rover. Watch the video for their discussion.
Two years ago, Hakuto signed an agreement with Astrobotic, a US startup that aims to ship goods into space. Hakuto wanted the firm to transport its lunar rover to the Moon.
However, last December, Astrobotic announced it was withdrawing from the race, saying it wished to prioritize working on its main business.
Hakamada then began his search all over again.
A firm in India owns a lunar lander. TeamIndus responded positively to the Japanese team's request to allow the rover to share a ride.
However, a problem emerged. Toshiro Shimizu, the Hakuto member in charge of communications, rushed to India. The issue was speed.
With Astrobotic's communications system, massive amounts of data could be sent very quickly. But with TeamIndus' system, only one-ten thousandth of the data could be sent. This means the amount of data that could previously be sent in 10 seconds would take 30 hours.
Communication is vital for controlling the rover. Immediate measures were needed to tackle the challenge.
Shimizu has been a science nerd since he was a child. After racking his brains, he came up with a solution.
In the method they originally envisioned, they would send the rover detailed directions for each of its actions.
In Shimizu's new method, the directions are input as one pattern, which is given a number.
This way, even with a thin communication circuit, it's possible to send complex directions just by sending the number from Earth.
However, the Japanese team had not yet been able to confirm if this communication software could be used for Teamindus' lunar lander.
Then came another setback. Teamindus asked that Hakuto use its communication software rather than the one the Japanese team had developed.
Teamindus claimed it had responsibility for the project. Hakuto, on the other hand, wanted to avoid further delays.
In the end the two parties were unable to reach an agreement. They decided to hold discussions at another time.
"We could say that if this had happened right before the launch we would be out of the race," says team Hakuto member Toshiro Shimizu. "Since the problem emerged now, we can still act and still reach the Moon."
Many difficulties block the path of the private sector's attempt to land a lunar rover. But team Hakuto is not discouraged and has vowed to continue with this unprecedented challenge.
"We are developing something new, so we will constantly be facing problems," says Hakamada. "Our technical expertise allows us to solve each issue within the time we have. We hope to steadily move towards the success of our mission."
Newsroom Tokyo science reporter Hajime Okada shares the story's latest developments with anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya. Watch the video for their discussion.