The sand dunes of Tottori Prefecture have been selected as a testing ground for a lunar rover being designed by a private sector Japanese team, in a worldwide competition to land a rover on the moon and send back high-quality imagery.
A private foundation backed by Google and others started the competition in 2007 with the goal of developing business opportunities in space. Sixteen teams from around the world are competing to send their independently designed rovers to the Moon. The contestants will compete in moving their rovers at least 500 meters on the lunar surface and sending high-resolution video and photos back to Earth. The current deadline for the competition is the end of 2017, and the first-place prize is $20 million, or around 2.13 billion yen.
The only Japanese group in the competition is team "HAKUTO," named after the Hakuto coast in Tottori Prefecture. Considered highly competitive, it plans to launch its rover on a private sector rocket from the U.S. state of Florida next year.
HAKUTO has around 100 members, including employees of the Tokyo space development company "ispace" and aerospace engineering professors. Ispace president and HAKUTO team leader Takeshi Hakamada, 36, says that the dust particles on the Moon are very fine, and rovers face a risk of slipping when driving there. The team must get used to operating the rover under these conditions before the launch.
Hakamada says the Tottori sand dunes resemble the lunar surface, with gentle slopes and fine sand particles at under 0.5 millimeters in diameter.
On May 18 this year, the Tottori Prefectural Government and HAKUTO signed an agreement to quickly proceed with work to allow rover tests on the part of the dunes managed by the prefecture. Tottori Gov. Shinji Hirai says, "We will support (HAKUTO) through to the moment of victory."
The prototype rover shown at the time of the agreement with the prefectural government measured 60 centimeters long, 54 centimeters wide and 48 centimeters tall and weighed 7 kilograms. It was equipped with a 360-degree rotational camera and could travel at 10 centimeters per second. The final version that will actually be used on the Moon is now nearing completion.
Hakamada says, "The HAKUTO project is capable of being a source of inspiration for many people. We want to show that goals can be realized."
Tests at the dunes are scheduled to begin in September, and will run for about a week. The prefecture has called the tests "an excellent opportunity to make the name of Tottori known even in space."