by Dr. New Jaa Yien
The Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) is the largest incentive competition of all time (USD$30M ≈ RM120M) that aims to reward the brightest minds of space entrepreneurs to create a new era of economical and easy access to the Moon, which paves the future for commercial space travel. This competition started in 2007 and is entering its final phase. The first team that successfully lands a robotic spacecraft on the Moon by August 2017 and captures high-resolution images and videos of the Moon will be declared the ultimate winner.
Currently, 16 teams from 11 countries, including our Malaysian Team, Independence-X, are in the running for the GLXP. Independence-X is also the only team from the Asia Pacific region. To catch a glimpse of the project led by Independence-X, Scientific Malaysian visited the Google Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Our correspondent, Dr. New Jaa Yien, spoke to the Independence-X Team, which is currently led by the Founder and CEO of Independence-X Aerospace Sdn. Bhd., Mr. Mohd. Izmir Yamin, on the team’s progress in racing to the final stage of the competition.
- What got the team interested in joining GLXP?
The competition provides an opportunity to be involved in a space race, which is not funded by the Government. The core of the race strongly relies on innovation, creativity and cost-effectiveness. We were also interested in getting to know the other teams which are private companies themselves, and to learn how to do things effectively from them. Conventionally, going to space requires government funding and support, thus, doing it in the private sector presents a separate, different set of challenges. We believe that if we are successful, we will actually provide huge benefits not just for commercial purposes but also for humanity.
- What is the team’s source of inspiration for the project?
Our idea was conceived prior to this competition, which is to help the needy ones in under-developed countries. This is referring to the population who do not have regular access to daily resources such as food, water, and education. Our idea is to provide access to education via remote communication so that they can gain knowledge in agriculture and resource management. With this approach, we can empower microeconomy in remote societies around the globe and facilitate their transition into a developing society.
Usually, the approach to establish communication in rural regions is by building telecommunication towers. However, this is challenging due to geographical issues, the lack of power supply, and the huge construction cost.
- How can this be done in a cost-effective way?
We did a preliminary survey and found that the best approach would be to launch a communication satellite into the space and have a ground terminal to receive the signal, similar to the operation of smartphones. This approach has been adopted by Thuraya, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. Inspired by this, we aim to develop and deliver a better prototype with a lower cost. By launching our own robotic spacecraft to the moon, we should be able to do the same for the communication satellite, in a cost-effective way. Joining this competition also speeds up the whole process. In addition, Malaysia is strategically located on the equator, which can serve as a natural space pod that enables us to save fuel for launching, and to increase payload for launching.
- What are your sources of funding for the project?
We do not and have not received any government funding and we wish to keep it this way. We are looking at getting the public involved through crowd funding initiatives. In addition to Independence-X, we have a drone company that provides mapping services for the agriculture industry and an engineering company that provides consultation services. All the revenue from these companies is channeled into the research and development of our space project.
- Can you briefly describe your project?
For a single unmanned mission to the Moon, the spacecraft will be carrying out three major operations, which is to transport itself from Earth to the Moon, conduct lunar landing maneuver, and finally the same craft itself will act as a hover type lunar rover. It will then hover forward from its landing point to another point in a straight line for 500 m. This spacecraft comprises of Malaysian designed and made Liquid Bi-Propellant Rocket engines which consists of 1 Main Thrusters and 8 Attitude Control Smaller Thrusters.
This development will be the first in the entire Southeast Asia. The craft will also be equipped with a long range and high gain antenna and communication system to enable data to be sent and received via a specially designed transponder. Two kinds of data are involved: TT&C data (Telemetry, Tracking and Control) that keep us on the Earth updated regarding the health status of the spacecraft, and the Payload Data that will provide the High Definition Images and Video of the lunar surface.
The entire craft is expected to weigh about 850 kg. Since weight limit is an issue, we have opted for a different kind of power source instead of the conventional solar panels and batteries. Solar panel will still be used as a secondary power for minor electronic applications. The electrical power requirements of the spacecraft will be supplied using a Hydrogen PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) Fuel Cell, which has significantly higher energy densities than batteries with solar panels. Thus, these fuel cells make the spacecraft lighter.
The space journey starts with the spacecraft departing the lower Earth orbit, about 500 km from the Earth. The spacecraft has to accelerate at a velocity of 10.8 km/sec precisely to escape from the Earth’s gravity and to enter the higher elliptical orbit. This orbit will then intercept with the Moon’s sphere of influence, which allows the Moon’s gravity to act on any object that crosses its radius. During the capturing process, the spacecraft will reduce its velocity to descend and reach a distance of ≤15 km from the Moon’s surface, where the lunar lander separates from the spacecraft to prepare for landing.
The landing has to happen at the side of the moon that is exposed to the Earth to allow maximum communication. All the monitoring will be done via the communication device that runs on solar batteries, which also powers the control system of the robotic spacecraft. The telemetry data generated by the robotic spacecraft will be delivered and received by portable devices such as tablets, which in turn can be used to control the spacecraft.
For the lunar rover that has landed, it has to first take photographs of itself and the Moon’s surrounding before traveling for another 500 meters to take more photographs and videos. The first team to send the images back to the Earth wins the grand prize. Due to time constraint, our spacecraft will be launched with the help of the Indian Space Research Organisation.
- Why is winning this competition so important for your team?
We aim to win GLXP instead of treating GLXP as a stepping stone. Winning this competition will create a lot of opportunities within our organisation to move forward even after the competition has ended. We view the competition as a way to push our limits to achieve greatness. If we win, we will create an impact on the nation by showing that we are capable in space technology. For our own commercial agenda, we hope that our success will attract business collaborations such as providing launching services after this competition has ended.
- What is the current progress of your team’s rover development?
We want to complete the project by December 2016, given that the the launch ideally should take place on 31 August 2017. The launch window is when the distance of the Moon is the closest to the Earth. We need a five-month gap after December to prepare ourselves for thorough checks of the robotic spacecraft and for the set-up of ground control communication.
Alongside this competition, we are also planning to design and build a launch vehicle specifically to carry Micro satellites into LEO (Lower Earth Orbit) as part of LAAS (Launch as a Service) in the immediate future after the GLXP competition. The construction of the vehicle will take less than five years to complete.
The vehicle is dubbed the DNLV (stands for the ‘Dedicated Nano Launch Vehicle’), which also has been endorsed by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and published in the December 2015 : Small SpaceCraft- State of The Art NASA Report.
- In comparison to other groups, what are the unique aspects of your project and what sets you apart from other teams?
The people we have. We have a unique combination of expertise in our team. Dr Clement Lo, who is the 2nd in command of this mission, is an expert in the nanotechnology realm. Other members of this mission bring more than just technical skills –they share the same ideology with the aviation and aerospace industries, pursue the same design objective, and engage in highly complex and challenging projects. For other teams, they are more research-oriented with most of them being academicians. That might create a gap in terms of executing such audacious project. Our team balances that out by having people previously involved in audacious projects.
- Two groups in the competition have already secured their launch contracts. What is your approach in securing such contract and what are the stumbling blocks?
So far the basic logistics have been secured with regards to the choice of rocket, the payload capacity and the desire launch date. The next step will be to raise enough funds to pay for the deposit by the end of this year. Once the deposit has been put in place, we can declare that the launch contract has been successfully secured, becoming the third team to do so. The deposit will be raised by Dr Clement Lo and his commercial team comprising of professional individuals.
- What is the biggest challenge in the project so far?
It would be the commercial side (funding) and not so much on the technical side. We
try to strengthen the commercial side of the project by employing the right brains. It is also
important that all of us share the same vision for the project. The lack of awareness is also a challenge. There are many people who are very interested in what we do but the aim is to reach the masses so as to inspire them. To do this, we have engaged with public relations experts, marketing and and branding specialists who share the same vision for the project.
- How could this project contribute to the R&D scenario in Malaysia?
Completing this project will bring credibility of a private company in Malaysia to carry out such project without any government funding, and will position ourselves on par with Singapore in terms of space technology. This will attract potential investments in high technology in Malaysia.
We also have had some discussions with various public and private institutions in Malaysia. Currently, we are collaborating with Taylors University by embedding part of our project in their students’ final year project, focusing mainly on the structure of the robotic spacecraft rather than the subsystems (e.g. deep space communications network and control system). However, during the process, two of the three students decided to drop out because they felt intimidated by the nature of the project which was deemed high risk and ambitious. We hope that students can understand that projects like this makes you think out of the box and prompt you to look for innovative solutions to a problem.
- What are the strategies that can be adopted by the government to better encourage more researchers to be interested in such project?
Actually, the government has been trying really hard since the Angkasawan project by doing various roadshows. This is a good motivation but unfortunately, the impact is just too short-lived and students participating in these roadshows tend to forget. Thus, a good motivation will be a new invention that you can create or build a value on and the value can be further commercialised and monetised so that it becomes sustainable. When that happens, it trickles down from the Industry to the university as well as to the high school and primary school levels. Creating an invention would inspire students from a young age who might want to be a robotic space engineer when they grow up.
For more information on the professional background of Izmir and Dr Clement Lo, please visit their company’s website.
For information on the GLXP competition, please visit the official website.