In early June, a group of 20 people got together in Tokyo for a
combined social gathering and lunar-related brainstorming session. This
was hosted by White Label Space Japan LLC (WLS-J), part of a
multinational team that is aspiring to win the grand prize which will
be awarded to the first Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) team that lands a
rover on the moon which can successfully complete a 500-meter trek
across the lunar surface while transmitting high definition video and
data back to Earth.
There are 29 teams from all across the world competing. WLS-J is
primarily responsible for building a broader base of support and
promoting the activities of one of those teams, Netherlands-based White
Label Space (WLS).
If everything goes according to plan, a prototype of a Japanese-built
WLS lunar rover will be ready for public viewing by the end of this
summer. That work is taking place for WLS at Tohoku University in the
Department of Aerospace Engineering's Space Robotics Laboratory under
the leadership of Professor Kazuya Yoshida. While the Laboratory is
well known for its important space-related projects, a very
sophisticated mobile robot known as Quince is also being built there.
Quince will be used in the Fukushima nuclear reactor plant. Professor
Tadokoro is in charge of this rapid development project.
As Founder and CEO of WLS-J, Takeshi Hakamada is attempting to reach
out to as many people as possible with a broad range of backgrounds.
"First of all, we think promotion is the most important thing to do to
raise funding so that we think the 'fun meeting' is one of our
promotion tools to educate and motivate people to get involved in
WLS activities," said Hakamada. "It was successful. Around 20 people
came and discussed how to promote GLXP and WLS in Japan with WLS-J
team members. We plan to hold this type of event every month."
Hakamada described the attendees as a mix of young Japanese
professionals who are interested in space development and have their
own professional careers, such as management consultants, PR agents,
scientists, and engineers.
"We are discussing the business plan and how to manage team activities.
We are almost finished with the planning phase and ready to move on to
the implementation phase." Said Hakamada. "Besides various companies
and individuals who are interested in WLS and who have started to
discuss future collaboration, the number of volunteers who want to help
us with WLS-related activities is increasing every week. How to use
them is now one of our happy, but serious issues."
Steven Allen, WLS's Team Leader, describes WLS as "a global adventure
of massive proportions." Among other things, it appears to be the
largest European-Asian partnership engaged in the GLXP competition.
"The team continues to grow in size, but the level of effort that
people (can offer WLS) varies due to the fact that the work is unpaid
and everyone needs also to make a living," said Allen.
WLS is attracting many talented individuals because they are frustrated
with government space programs (or the lack thereof), and these people
like having the freedom that they cannot find elsewhere in the space
sector as well.
"This ability to work on what they love creatively and collaboratively
without being bound by archaic space industry work practices (is very
important to them). The space industry in Europe especially seems to
have been built to kill off any form of enthusiasm and is built to
maintain the current status quo," said Allen. "The result is a lack of
genuine space technology innovation, high cost, red tape and engineers
that wonder why they bothered to investing a large amount of their time
and energy to join the industry."
Allen very much appreciates what Hakamada is trying to do at WLS-J with
his "fun meeting" concept.
"In order for us to raise the funds we need, we need to get more PR
people on board ASAP. Anyone out there with the marketing skills that
we need, and is willing to put in the hours to get us where we need to
be, please feel free to contact us," said Allen.
Check out the WLS and WLS-J web sites at -
Allen also describes the progress on the rover by Professor Yoshida's
team as "astounding" especially when you consider that devastating
effects of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami on the region
surrounding Tohoku University.
Besides the vital support from the group at Tohoku University and
WLS-J, WLS has relied on "Lunar Numbat" which are WLS's partners from
Australia and New Zealand.
"They have also done some incredible work for us, and are in fact
critical to our overall mission success," said Allen. "The biggest
challenge for our team right now is finance. We are a technology heavy
team, and one of the few that has members that have real life
experience with actual space missions. So, we do need some people
onboard right now that can help us out with both finance and PR."
India - home to many enthusiasts and experts who are members of various
GLXP teams - may play an important role here in terms of getting WLS to
"We still intend to use an Indian PSLV-XL launch vehicle, which has
both a good track record and is cost effective in comparison to some of
the other options we have considered," said Allen, who monitors
other Asian teams, but does not see them "doing anything particularly
outstanding" thus far.
"There are some teams in Europe doing interesting things both
technically and on the marketing side, but there is no sign of any
major funding for them. Personally, I like the work that Frednet and
ARCA have been doing, and of course, the joyous craziness that Synergy
Moon brings to the competition," said Allen.
Allen finds it unfortunate that neither ESA nor JAXA,"has stepped up to
the plate to offer financial support to teams from Europe and Japan."
So, mark your calendars for the final week in August. That is when the
curtain will go up on the 4-wheel rover prototype that the team at the
Space Robotics Laboratory has been designing and fabricating for
concept verification and ground-based field testing.
"Today, we are working on the onboard electronics for wheel motor
control and omni-cam image processing for mapping and navigation. Now,
we are planning a big party for the prototype roll-out in Tokyo where
we will demonstrate basic mobility and panorama viewing capability
using an onboard omni-directional camera," said Professor Yoshida.
The biggest challenge facing the team has been wheel and chassis
design. What is emerging is a rover which is 300 x 400 x 500 mm in
size, 10 kg in mass, and equipped with 4 wheels which are 200 mm in
"We know that larger dimensions in wheel diameter, wheelbase, and track
are certainly advantageous for the locomotion in loose soil
environment, such as Moon surface covered with lunar regolith. We
therefore designed a deployable chassis," said Professor Yoshida. "The
chassis has a passive suspension mechanism that ensures a stable
contact of wheels on rough and bumpy surface. The proportion of the
wheel diameter of our rover is the biggest when compared to the rovers
of other teams, and this will make a big difference in overall mobility
on the Moon."
Thermal design is certainly important, and a very challenging aspect
for such a tiny rover with 10kg in mass, too.
"We need to keep the temperature of the driving motors and onboard
electronics in an appropriate range against intense sunlight and its
reflection from the shiny surface," said Professor Yoshida. "This will
be a future challenge when we design the Engineering Model (EM) as a
Besides WLS-J, Prof. Yoshida can detect no other GLXP teams with
headquarters or partners in Japan.
"To the best of our knowledge, there are no individuals in Japan
supporting other teams. Yes, we are surprised by this since Japan has a
lot to offer the GLXP," said Prof. Yoshida. "Our technology is known
all over the world, and we already have strong space programs including
lunar missions. Also, we have many large global companies that would be
While Allen is unhappy about the lack of support from ESA and JAXA,
NASA is a different story entirely.
"We are particularly watching the American teams that have received
seed capital from a special NASA program. Each of those teams are
developing a special key technology needed for lunar landing. The
support they are getting from NASA is very useful to fund the early
phases of their mission developments, but it is not enough to close
their business cases. They will eventually need one or more big
sponsorship deals," said Prof. Yoshida.
He is referring to NASA's Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD)
program which Allen describes as "a critical source of funding for GLXP
teams with members based in the USA, while at the same time giving them
a governmental rubber stamp of approval for the technology they are
"In these times of economic uncertainty, European and Asian space
agencies should really be trying to foster a startup culture that will
bring competition and much needed innovation to the space industry
market place (instead of state monopoly) and bring down the cost to
taxpayers who are the people that actually have to foot the bill," said
Allen, who estimates that the first GLXP rover will actually land on
the MOON in 2014 at the earliest, but I would love to be surprised."
(I often edit / rewrite text and press releases written in
English by other GLXP teams based outside the U.S. The Russian team
known as Team Selenokhod, and the Shanghai-based Team Selene ask
frequently for my assistance which I provide free of charge. I have also assisted
newer teams from Brazil, and Chile, but they seldom knock on my door
lately. Team Selenokhod ranks at the top of my list in terms of actual
work performed to date.)