Page 1 of 2 Lunar prize sets Asian hearts racing
By Peter J Brown
While the people who established the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP)  are hoping
that the winning team will leave its mark on the moon in the next three years
or so, the GLXP has already left an important mark on China.
With a nod of approval from the government of China, a privately funded
German-Chinese team is quietly taking shape. There are only 3 GLXP teams now
based in Asia, including two in Malaysia - Independence-X Aerospace (IDXA)
which is based in Shah Alam and Kuala Lumpur, and Team Advaeros in Perak.
However, it is Team Selene in Shanghai that is truly breaking new ground.
Indeed, the existence of Team Selene is remarkable in itself. Observers of
Chinese activities in space who have claimed for
years that a state-military monopoly oversees and supports all space activity
in China will immediately see that Team Selene does not fit the mold. Like it
or not, Team Selene's presence in Shanghai might be the start of a new trend,
or at least it represents a few steps - indeed tiny steps - taken towards the
creation of a robust private space sector in China.
According to Markus Bindhammer, a native of Bavaria who started Team Selene,
the GLXP competition is not well known in China.
"Awareness in China is minimal. The reason is the lack of interest on the part
of Chinese media like CCTV or the daily Chinese newspapers. The GLXP and our
Chinese team can awaken public opinion like a new kind of sport, like a space
or moon Olympiad," said Bindhammer, who added that Team Selene is now preparing
a comprehensive presentation including hardware, 3-D animation, a mission plan
and relevant calculations which will be presented to the Chinese media this
A US$20 million first prize goes to the team which is the first to build,
launch and land a privately-funded lunar rover on the moon by the end of 2012.
In this case, "privately funded" means that at least 90% of a team's support or
funding must come from the private sector.
After making a successful soft landing, the lunar rover needs to go at least
500 meters across the lunar surface while simultaneously transmitting video,
images and data back to Earth in order to win this competition. If the 2012
deadline proves to be too challenging, a team can still win $15 million if it
pulls this off before anyone else by the end of 2014. The second-placed team
will win $5 million. Bonus prizes that total $5 million will be awarded as
The GXLP is on the minds of space professionals and enthusiasts all over Asia.
Vu Trong Thu, a member of Team FREDNET, is the founder of the FSpace Laboratory
in Vietnam where work on a nano-satellite is now underway. Although this team
is not actually based in Asia, like many others it is eager to collaborate with
universities and research groups in the region.
When Thu first became aware of Team FREDNET, he was almost "blown away" by the
idea of an international team consisting of so many individuals from so many
countries working together on such an ambitious project. He has prior
experience working with a team from Vietnam's Space Technology Institute, and
with Japanese aerospace engineers to develop a tiny picosatellite - or
artificial satellite with a mass between 0.1 and 1 kilogram.
Team FREDNET is confident that the tremendous interest in a private sector
mission to the moon will pay off in the years to come. "Our open source model
is a great vehicle for developing a social network of highly skilled
individuals who can team together to achieve a challenging technical program.
Team FREDNET hopes to leverage this engineering know-how for future missions
beyond the current X-Prize competition," said Team FREDNET spokesman Sean
Mohd Izmir Yamin, IDXA's team leader and director, contends that while the
Malaysian public is not very aware of GLXP, it is a different story elsewhere
in Asia based on the overwhelming number of online responses and forums
regarding GLXP which really demonstrate that a large number of people in Asia
are taking GLXP very seriously.
"The awareness in Asia of the GLXP keeps on growing and growing. Who could
forget the first privately funded human space flight, Spaceship One. The
excitement that it created for space, has inspired so many people, especially
young people throughout Asia," said Hanidy Yusof, a spokesman for Team
Advaeros. "We want space access for everyone, not just a privileged few. The
prospect of that dream seems brighter every year."
Netherlands-based Team White Label Space (Team WLS), which is a prospective
GLXP team that has not yet completed the formal GLXP registration process, is
interested in establishing contacts in Asia. They have created a subtitled
version of the GLXP promotional video "Moon 2.0" in Japanese, Chinese, Korean
and Indonesian. 
According to Team WLS's team leader, Steve Allen, the development of lunar
rover prototype models for concept verification will soon commence at the
Department of Aerospace Engineering's Space Robotics Laboratory at Tohoku
University in Japan which has done extensive work for Japan's Aerospace
Exploration Agency, among other things.
"The Space Robotics Laboratory is dedicated to the research and development of
space and robotic systems for exploration missions. A challenge like GLXP is
very important in terms of its educational aspect, particularly in motivating
students to transform their ideas into a real space flight mission, and thus
solving enormous engineering problems in the process of development," said
Professor Kazuya Yoshida, who is in charge of the lab.
"A big challenge will be communication [with the lunar rover] for
tele-operation and video/data transmission. The very small size of the [rover]
means that we can only use a very small antenna. The transmission bit-rate must
be very small. Therefore the rover should be designed to be compatible with
such a limitation," added Professor Yoshida.
Team Selene is finding that universities in China are very eager to lend a
"The support we receive from the Chinese universities is very important,
because they have the manpower through volunteers, the knowledge and
experience. We now have partnerships with the Nanjing University of Aeronautics
and Astronautics (NUAA) and the Beijing University of Aeronautics and
Astronautics (BUAA)," said Bindhammer.
Professor Peng from the NUAA, along with a few of his students, is helping to
design of the onboard communications subsystems and conduct program analysis
for Team Selene's lunar rover and spacecraft, among other things. Professor He
from the BUAA is contributing his expertise to the design of the Selena 1
spacecraft. Team Selene is still trying to raise funds to develop its rover and
spacecraft as well as pay for the launch. Bindhammer estimates that Team
Selene's total cost for this project will be roughly US$15 million.
"We have no financial support at the moment. I pay for everything or it gets
done by volunteers. I hope the support from the German and Chinese governments
will be 50/50. The 90% of our efforts which must be privately funded is not a
big concern for me, because it is equally difficult - or maybe easier to get
the money by sponsorships," said Bindhammer who hopes to attract big foreign
companies which are still not yet established in China. "They will become well
known in China by sponsoring Team Selene. But for this to happen, our project
has to get more publicity in China, too."
This admission may come as a surprise to readers who envision everything that
is underway in China involving any aspect of space exploration as part of a
monolithic, state-funded military-operated space program.
Bindhammer is very mindful of the perception that the Chinese government and
the Chinese military in particular are providing all funds for China's
activities in space, and that this might draw greater scrutiny from GLXP
officials who will ultimately determine if Team Selene has been successfully
abiding by the "90% private sector" rule or not.
"It is often not so easy to prove what is privately funded and what is funded
by government," said Bindhammer.
Team Astrobotic in the US, for example, draws its engineering and technical
talent from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Arizona and Raytheon.
Another US team, Team Next Giant Leap, which was known simply as the "Mystery
Team" for over a year, includes several US companies and universities which
work for the US Department of Defense including the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology's Space Systems Laboratory, Microsat Systems Inc, Aurora Flight
Sciences Corp, and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc.
"There are individuals on these US-based and other teams who do research with
public funds, and so in the end, some of their work on the GLXP is paid by
public funds. In my opinion, it would not be fair to focus only on Chinese
teams as far as this sort of connection is concerned," said Bindhammer.