Malaysians Set To Make History By Landing The Nation’s First Rover On The Moon
Published 4 August, 2016
Have you ever dreamt about going to the Moon? Very rarely we hear such excursions by local enthusiasts venturing into space apart from those in the ‘Angkasawan’ programme, and not many are aware, but the technology needed to send a spacecraft on the Moon has already existed in our country.
Seeing as the cost of sending a rover is astronomical, it makes projects such as these even more difficult to be borne by the government and private sectors. However, back in 2006, Google launched its Google Lunar XPRIZE or referred to as Moon 2.0, an initiative to make going to the Moon, and possibly beyond it more accessible and affordable.
And interestingly enough, a team of dedicated Malaysians who have set their eyes on the prize, $20 million (RM81 mil), have landed a spot among the 16 finalists in the competition which is moving towards its final stages.
Independence-X Aerospace (IDXA), is the only team representing Southeast Asia in the competition, and its members, are proudly Malaysians. The team is comprised of the Moon Men, those who are working on sending the craft to the Moon, and the Moon Squad, those who are supporting the Moon Men through other methods.
Meeting up at Petrosains, KLCC, Malaysian Digest sat down with Izmir Yamin, the team leader of IDXA, to talk about his team’s endeavour in conquering space with all the constraints placed upon them.
How It All Started
As a self-confessed Star Wars fan, Izmir admits growing up in the space shuttle age has made him fascinated about the space shuttle itself, and it also made him wonder what people actually do up there, which sparked further interest in space.
Aside his genuine curiosity, he often wondered about solving real world problems which include the suffering of people all around the world who have no access to food, water and education− and found that the answer lies in space.
“I thought about how to spread knowledge across the globe in a cost effective way and after much thought, nothing beats communications satellites.
“Let’s say we build a telco tower, it will cost you RM5 million and it’s only about 5km radius. On the other hand, if you launch a RM5 million satellite, you can cover almost 300km area footprint for the same cost,” he said.
However, he then found that the cost of launching a satellite is too prohibitive and because of this, he changed his focus from building satellites to finding a way to reduce the cost to launch a satellite so that more can be done globally than what is done now.
“The cost of launching a satellite into space is a lot but if we can reduce it in order to make space access cost effective and have a more global outreach, then we can do a lot more than what we are doing today.
“That’s why I changed my approach from focusing on satellite to focusing on launch and how we can make space access more accessible and affordable.
“Think about this as the ‘AirAsia’ of space programme,” he joked.
His venture started way back in university when he and his friends, who formed a special interest group, found a new formulation and a better way of making rocket fuel.
They managed to launch their first rocket, Independence 1 (ID-1), soon after, with the new fuel they formulated and that motivated them to upgrade and pursue their project further.
The rocket’s name also did not simply come about as Izmir shared the poignant reason behind it.
“The rocket was named that because during the countdown on Independence Day in 2003, I was looking at the sky and I was actually crying because even though we have reached independence, we are not independent of technologies. We still rely on foreign technology.
“If we can free our minds that we Malaysians too can do it, we can change a lot, not just lives in Malaysia but also lives across the region,” he reminisced.
With their evolving innovations, they entered a science innovation competition and won a gold medal, which had actually helped them to move forward and enter a competition in Europe.
They came out victorious, beating out competitors from the USA, Japan and Russia for their rocket engine development.
“We were surprised and thankful for the opportunity,” he humbly said.
And this breakthrough helped them to compete in the Google Lunar XPRIZE that Google announced back in 2006.
The Google Lunar XPRIZE
In 2006, Google’s CEO and CTO announced the Google Lunar XPRIZE, where a privately funded team must successfully place a rover on the moon’s surface, purposely move it for 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth.
This needs to be accomplished before the mission deadline of December 31, 2017 to win the competition.
Registration for the competition opened in 2007 but Izmir and his friends did not immediately register because there were many things that they needed to figure out if they entered the competition.
“We were looking at the registration because we were planning to make a launch vehicle but there were a lot of things we did not know.
“We needed the access to learn from professional networks and people, so the announcement was passing us by but then we just said, “Why are we just looking from the outside and not joining it?”
“So, we decided to submit our application. At that time there was 8,000 applications worldwide before it was narrowed down to 2,000 and ultimately 34 were selected.
“The selection was technical; they looked at team composition, past projects and such,” he explained.
And this is where their gold medals made the difference.
“The past project we had were the gold medals we won for our rockets and all the new fuels and alternative methods. We included all of that in our application, including the newspaper clippings that reported on our success,” he shared.
As a result, now, they are the only Southeast Asian country to be shortlisted in the final 16 teams competing in the XPRIZE.
“I’m still shell-shocked at what we’ve achieved as a team. For a small Malaysian team to reach the final 16 out of 8,000 teams is an amazing achievement on its own, but our vision is bigger than this and we’re not just stopping here.
“We also would like to carry the ASEAN flag as well besides the Malaysian flag, seeing that we are the only Southeast Asian country in the competition,” he proudly said.
Despite all the excitement, it has not been smooth sailing for Izmir’s team in this close to 10 years period of working on this project. But he assures, the small team of 13 is going to see this project through to the end.
“The team members had changed over the years as this is a part-time thing – some of them have other commitments and could not fully commit.
“But our current team is the perfect composition and we are going to see this through till the end,” he expressed.
He further admitted to funding being one of the biggest setbacks as they had to fund themselves, however, they are not the only ones faced with this challenge.
“This is a tough challenge for all the teams because since they cannot get funding by the government, they have to bootstrap and build cost effective ways to actually get their inventions to the moon because of the limited resources.
“And since 2008 until now, none of the teams have landed on the moon.
“Google have extended the competition many times and this competition will go on until someone reaches the moon first.
“The original deadline was at the end of the year of 2010, but it was not feasible, so it was pushed to 2012, 2015, and now 2017, because it was still not feasible,” he explained.
“The Google team have gone down to the countries of these teams and they were making a lot of progress but something is stuck.
“If you look at the scale of the cost, the US government has spent $22 billion on the manned space programme, the Russians spent $500 million on the unmanned programme, the Chinese spent $180 million and India spent $80 million.
“And then, there is us,” he said.
The teams in the competition not only lack the funding but they also lacked the manpower needed to tackle this project.
Nevertheless, IDXA had a breakthrough in the funding front as they have found their first donor.
“We got our first donor but it was on an individual basis. However, he is now trying to talk to his bosses so that they can sponsor a big chunk of the project and in return we will plant their flag on the moon,” he shared.
Apart from approaching like-minded corporate sponsors, they are also planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign, which aims to not only raise the funds but to also bring the nation together for a cause that will ultimately benefit the nation.
How They Are Getting There
As they are making headway in raising funds for their project, his team is racing to complete the craft that they want to spend to space.
They had initially designed a rover nicknamed ‘Henry’ that they want to place on the Moon, which was designed to display simplicity and functionality at the same time.
However, the plan has been completely altered as they have decided to go with a lunar drone instead of a ground rover.
“The drone will fly across the moon surface with rocket engines instead of propellers.
“It will look like a lunar lander from the future, it has a very futuristic look,” he shared.
This new design will consolidate their initial plan to use three separate crafts into one, where the craft that will depart from the Earth’s orbit to the Moon’s orbit, land on the Moon and move on the Moon’s surface, will be the same and they are planning to complete it by the end of this year.
What’s more impressive is that Izmir and his team are building the engines of the craft from scratch as they do not have the funds to buy it.
Because of this, the craft launch plan has also been shifted to August instead of their initial plan to launch it in May next year, due to the plenty of preparation that needs to be done. Coincidentally, this comes full circle to Izmir’s epiphany back in 2003.
Their craft will be launched by a third party as they do not have time to build the big rocket to leave Earth and they will be launching from Sriharikota, India.
“It will take a total of 17 minutes to launch from Indian soil to space: 7 minutes to reach space and another 10 minutes to park into orbit.
“Once parked, we will take over the controls from Malaysia,” he explained.
The craft will then need almost a month to reach the Moon.
It all sounds simple but Izmir disclosed that one of the biggest challenges once the craft is in space is fuel, as they need to bring enough fuel to reach the distance between Earth and the Moon, which is around 400,000 km.
As desperate times call for desperate measures, Izmir’s team found an innovative way to work around the need of much fuel, by using gravity to help them slingshot the craft around Earth and throw them all the way to the Moon using a minimal amount of fuel.
They also had to find ways to make their craft more cost effective and have the best result, which resulted in them building the cheapest craft ever.
“We had to find many innovations and we found them in many areas such as science, mathematics and chemistry, and now our craft is so small that the maximum weight is about 850kg, about 2.4metres in diameter and about 1.5 metre in height.
“Right now it will cost roughly around € 23 million (RM104 mil), which is the cheapest ever… but we will need to make sure it works first before we can declare that it is the cheapest ever.
“And sure it is more than the prize that Google is giving out but it is still less than what any nation has done,” he declared.
Although the team is aiming to win this competition, Izmir said that even if they don’t, reaching the Moon itself will be a breakthrough.
Humanity Should Not Be Left Behind In The Race For Development
Wrapping up our interview, Izmir left us with some parting words.
“To be a developed nation in science and technology, we have to look into solving the problem because we want to improve ourselves and to move to the next level of excellence, and not because we want to become better than others.
“If we continue in that way, we would not have any issue working with any nations on the planet in order to progress our nation forward,” he said.
However, Izmir also cautioned that there should be a balance between science and humanity or it would harden the hearts of the people.
“Some people study science so much that we become like a machine without a heart; we become like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
“That is why we need a cause, a human element in it. This is what I have learned so far because at one point I was the Tin Man, but I have since learned to soften my heart a little,” he mused.
As he is a proponent of racing with one’s self in order to progress, he has already envisioned his next space project once this Lunar project is done.