The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

When, in the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company wanted to explore a westerly route to the Orient, it created a prize for which any sea captain could compete. Seven years after the company’s founding in 1602, a man named Henry Hudson took up the offer. Setting sail on board the Halve Maen (Half Moon), a four-masted sailing ship, Hudson’s first port of call when he reached the Americas, en route to the East, was Newfoundland.

Over 400 years after Hudson’s quest, a new prize for a new generation of explorers is on offer. In 2007, the Google Lunar XPRIZE challenged teams of voyagers from across the world to land an unmanned rover on the moon. The first two teams to complete the mission are to share $30 million in prize money.

In an exclusive interview with The Journal, Chanda Gonzales, senior director of Google Lunar XPRIZE, says: “The prize was created for a couple of reasons. First, to get people to pursue options for going to the moon in a cost-effective and efficient way. Second, to inspire people from around the world to get involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.”

When registration closed on December 31, 2010, there were 29 teams in the running. As of this writing, 16 remain. Three are from the United States: Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Earthrise Space Foundation. One team, Hakuto, is from Japan. The rest either have an international composition or hail from India, Israel, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Hungary, Brazil, or Chile.

In competing for the prize, the group’s leader Takeshi Hakamada tells The Journal, Hakuto hopes not only to explore the natural resources on—and topography of—the moon, but also to “spread the XPRIZE spirit to other Japanese people and spotlight another opportunity for them to contribute to the world.”

The Google Lunar XPRIZE was created through a collaboration between the XPRIZE Foundation (formerly X Prize Foundation), a non-profit organization, and tech giant Google Inc., which is the sponsoring partner.

The incentivized competition challenges privately-funded spaceflight teams to be the first to land a robotic rover on the moon. Having landed, the rover is to be remotely driven 500 meters and tasked with sending video footage back to Earth.
The main goal of the project is to inspire industry to invest in cost-effective exploration of space, as well as colonization of the moon.

“Most governments estimate that completing a lunar mission will cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Gonzales.

“[But] we know that the technologies developed by the teams will further reduce costs and barriers to entry into the field, allowing private industry to absorb the risk and expedite innovation.”

Further, she sees exploration of the moon as a mere “stepping-off point” to exploring the rest of the universe.

Members of the Hakuto team collaborate on rover development at the Hakuto Ebisu Lab.

Members of the Hakuto team collaborate on rover development at the Hakuto Ebisu Lab.

Hakuto comprises volunteers from a variety of industries and countries. In addition to researchers from the Space Robotics Laboratory at Tohoku University, as well as members of ispace Inc., a robotics startup based in Tokyo, the team includes former members of White Label Space (WLS).

WLS was a team created in 2008 by young scientists who worked for the European Space Agency. A former Google Lunar XPRIZE contender, the team was originally based in the Netherlands and Japan. When WLS relocated to Japan in 2013, in part due to its increasingly close relationship with the Japanese side of the team, it was subsequently renamed Hakuto.

Hakuto’s network of international volunteers includes designers, content creators, legal counsel, and scientists. As part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, the team has two rovers under development: a two-wheeled vehicle called Tetris and a four-wheeled one named Moonraker.

Asked what she makes of Hakuto’s chances, Gonzales says: “Team Hakuto is a very strong contender. They were one of only five teams who competed for Milestone Prizes in 2014.” In that competition, Hakuto won a $500,000 dollar prize in the category of Mobility.

Hakuto is the first Japanese team to compete for an XPRIZE.

Hakuto is the first Japanese team to compete for an XPRIZE.

Getting the Google Lunar XPRIZE off the ground was not smooth sailing, Gonzales says. While the initial launch was relatively straightforward—especially due to Google’s sponsorship—a number of stumbling blocks emerged.

When the competition was initially launched, the intention was to select the winner by the end of 2014. But over the past nine years, “we’ve come to understand the difficulty of the challenge, which includes a realistic timetable for teams to develop the necessary technology and to raise the required funds. We have recalibrated the timeline, extending it to the end of 2017,” Gonzales admits.

The recalibration is hardly surprising because “what we are pursuing is new and we need to be willing to adapt to the unexpected in order for something truly great to happen,” she adds.

Also known as Moon 2.0, the competition will split its prize money between two teams: $20 million will go to the first group that successfully completes its tasks, while $5 million will go the team that finishes second. The remaining $5 million is set aside for bonus prizes for technological advances emerging from the contest.

For the teams, becoming a Google Lunar XPRIZE contender has not been a walk in the park. To qualify for the competition, each team was required to pay a non-refundable registration fee.
Further, no more than 10 percent of a team’s funding could be sourced from a government entity, meaning that competitors largely have had to be privately funded.

Further, such is the attrition rate in the competition that “the selection process happens naturally.” The upshot is that some teams have withdrawn from the contest while others have been acquired or have undergone a merger (as was the case when WLS became Hakuto).

In 2015, moreover, Hakuto announced a partnership with Astrobotic, a lunar logistics company and fellow XPRIZE contender that is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Under the collaboration, Hakuto’s and Astrobotic’s rovers—as well as one other group’s rover—will hitch a ride on the US team’s lunar lander on their way to the moon. Once there, the rovers will race to complete their respective tasks.

In an exclusive interview with The Journal, CEO of Astrobotic John Thornton says: “This means we will have three rovers that will fly to the moon, land, and race as fast as they can for 500 meters. It is almost like a Formula One race in slow motion … happening for the world to see.”

This friendly competition is something welcomed by Astrobotic. “[The race] is a good snapshot or representation of Japan–US relations: most of the time we are friends, but there are times when we compete in business,” Thornton says. Team Hakuto agrees.

Hakuto Development Leader, Professor Kazuya Yoshida

Hakuto Development Leader,
Professor Kazuya Yoshida

Hakuto is the only Japanese team ever to have competed for an XPRIZE, of which there have been 13 variations since 2004. A key aim for Hakuto, then, is to inspire a new generation of collaborators, innovators, and explorers from around the world—but especially in Japan.

Hakuto Team Leader, Takeshi Hakamada

Hakuto Team Leader, Takeshi Hakamada

Further, the competition was created to challenge the next generation of students and the study of STEM subjects. Referring to the XPRIZE’s power to invigorate interest in STEM, Thornton says: “The moon is still an inspiring and special place for people all over the world. The moon landings are often described as mankind’s greatest achievement ever … [and yet] many nations have not had their ‘Apollo moment.’ So there is a huge untapped potential there to get the next generation excited about space.”
For Thornton and Team Astrobotic, which is a spinoff created by staff and former students of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, a future can be envisaged where people from all over the world are able to connect to the moon in imaginative ways. Students, for instance, could drive a robotic rover remotely from their classrooms or do real-time experiments on bodies out in space.

To this end, teams competing for the prize have visited schools and conducted science seminars for the public. Hakuto has challenged elementary school children in Tokyo to drive a rover remotely in a space designed to mimic the conditions of the moon’s surface.

Google Lunar XPRIZE, meanwhile, has created an initiative that inspires young people between eight and 17 years of age. Known as the Moonbots Challenge, this international competition calls on young adults to design, create, and program their own robots. They are also encouraged to speak about their research to peer groups and the public.

In 2015, Astrobotic supported two teams from the United States competing in the Moonbot Challenge, for which four grand prize winners (two from the United States and one each from Mexico and Italy) attended an award ceremony hosted by Hakuto in Tokyo.

Many wonders await the winning team. Hakuto hopes to lead the exploration.

Many wonders await the winning team. Hakuto hopes to lead the exploration.

The XPRIZE has also inspired exploration of business opportunities afforded by spaceflight. For its part, Astrobotic has been positioned as a mail service to the moon. The national space agency of Mexico (Agencia Espacial Mexicana), aims to fly with Astrobotic, making Mexico the first Latin American nation to land on the moon. The agency will see millions of dollars worth of cost savings thanks to the collaboration, Thornton says.

Hakamada also sees business opportunities resulting from the contest. “There is a growing interest in utilization of the resources of the moon, to facilitate further exploration,” he says, speaking of possibilities such as mining for ice water and Helium-3, which is thought to be abundant on the moon.

“Hakuto’s ultimate target,” he continues, “is to explore holes that are thought to be caves or ‘skylights’ on the moon that lead into underlying lava tubes. These tubes could prove to be very important scientifically, as they could help explain the moon’s volcanic past. They could also become candidate sites for long-term habitats, which may be able to shield humans from the moon’s hostile environment.”

Back in 1609, when Hudson and the Halve Maen reached the Americas, he and his crew explored the area around Newfoundland and modern-day Maine and New York. After returning to England and filing a report for the Dutch East India company in 1610, he soon went back out to sea. This time, he sailed in search of a safe northwest route around Canada.

Unfortunately for Hudson, a severely cold winter, which saw his ship stuck at modern day James Bay in Canada, was followed by an on-board mutiny. Hudson was tossed overboard, never to be heard from again.

However, the Dutch East India company, and Hudson himself, had ignited an entrepreneurial flame—one which saw Dutch and British settlements spread across the world—that would be passed on by explorers for generations to come.

Hakuto, Astrobotic, and other Google Lunar XPRIZE contenders are torchbearers in a tradition of exploration, inspiration, and international collaboration that continues to this day. It remains to be seen, however, if they will create a settlement on the moon, or simply pave the way for the next generation of voyagers.


John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
Google challenged teams from around the world to land an unmanned rover on the moon.