National

As deadline looms, Japanese team in lunar probe contest still determined to shoot for the moon

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

A Japanese team participating in an international lunar probe competition said Thursday it will not give up its plan to launch a rocket to send its rover to the moon, even as prospects for doing so by the deadline — the end of March — grow dim.

Team Hakuto was aiming to launch its 58-centimeter, 4-kilogram unmanned rover, named Sorato, aboard an Indian rocket by March 31, to be able to compete in the Google Lunar Xprize competition. Hakuto means white rabbit in Japanese.

But the team’s plan was derailed after Indian competitor TeamIndus was unable to launch the rocket, making it extremely difficult to find an alternative before the deadline for sending its rover to the moon. Hakuto partnered with TeamIndus in December 2016 to transport their rovers together aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket.

Despite the slim odds the team announced on its website that it will not withdraw from the race, out of consideration for public support of their project, and will continue to take on the challenge.

“As long as we don’t stop moving forward, we can find a solution to whatever challenges we face,” said Hakuto’s team leader Takeshi Hakamada in a news release.

The moon probe contest — the first of its kind — asks participants to compete on speed to see who can complete three tasks fastest: landing a spacecraft on the lunar surface, having it travel at least 500 meters, and transmitting high-resolution videos and images from the probe back to Earth. The first team to complete all three tasks will claim a grand prize of $20 million.

Hakuto is one of five privately funded finalists in this contest. Other participants are SpaceIL from Israel, Moon Express from the United States, TeamIndus, and an international team dubbed Synergy Moon, according to the U.S.-based Xprize Foundation, which organized the contest. The contest, sponsored by Google, started in 2007 with 34 participants, but many teams decided to withdraw from the race.

Hakuto also said Thursday it will continue to support TeamIndus and find ways to keep competing, which include discussing the deadline with the foundation and the Indian team.

Hakuto, whose name derives from a Japanese folktale in which the dark areas on the moon’s surface look like a rabbit, is sponsored by KDDI Corp., Japan Airlines Co., and other private companies and organizations.