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    Greater China
     Apr 3, 2009
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) [1] 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 summer.

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 well.

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 Casey.

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. [2]

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 hand.

"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. 

Continued 1 2  


China's role in commercial space on hold (Dec 23,'08)

India's postcards from space
(Oct 7,'08)

By the light of a Chinese moon
(Oct 26,'07)


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