The moon doesn’t have advertising, according to this team from the Netherlands and Japan. Advertising brings money, which, in turn, will bring the rover to the moon. For now, they all hope it is affordable.
The debate is lively this evening in the meeting room of the firm AOES in Noordwijk. Seven men are sitting at the table, the youngest mid-30, the oldest in the early 60s. Engineers, technicians; the only banker around the table has difficulty in following the conversation.
AOES is a medium-sized aerospace company, and looking out the window the buildings of the European Space Agency ESA can be seen. The screen in the conference room shows images with formulae, calculations, tables. That’s Martin Lemmen’s part. He’s investigating heat analysis during the landing, as the lander descends from the orbit around the moon to the moon’s surface.
How can you avoid overheating by sunshine during the landing? When would be the best time for the landing?
“Morning, after 7am moon time”, says Lemmen. “That will enable sunshine to power the lander [by photovoltaic cells]”.
“I would prefer earlier” responds Andrew Barton, leading the discussions, “then we’d have more time up there for experiments”.
“That would work” answers Lemmen, “but makes it more complicated”.
White Label Space (WLS) has an international make-up. The team members in Holland work on the landing module. In Japan, at Tohoku University in Sendai – they survived undamaged after earthquakes and tsunamis – Professor Kazuya Yoshida, expert in space robotics, and his students are building the payload: the moon rover.
“There’s surely no one better in Japan for such an exercise” says Barton.
Barton is an Australian with a work permit in the Netherlands. He’s studied aerospace in Sydney, Tokyo and Strasbourg. He’s an engineer at AOES, in his mid-30s, with a close cropped beard. He’s one of the founders and the Chairman of WLS. At the very start, he arranged that the firm in which he is employed to become a WLS partner; in exchange for the welcome publicity, AOES has given him time off to work on the project.
“Such an adventure has always been my dream” says Barton. By that he means this sort of space mission in which it wasn’t necessary to spend decades in the planning phase in order to get the support of earthbound bureaucracies. This is a project that, in addition to technical capabilities, demands spontaneity and unconventional ideas – and that is spectacular enough not only to inspire the participants, but to keep them awake.
In total, approximately 25 persons are heavily involved in WLS, all on an unpaid basis, including Barton. But not everyone is contributing publicly. Several team members work in the space industry or at ESA.
“They are afraid of difficulties” reckons Barton.
Most of them are driven by similar motives as he is: in the end to be able to realise something by himself, to be creative without restrictions.
The creativity begins with the financing: the conceptual idea features in the name of the team. White Label Products are products with no brand markings.
Says Barton: “White Label Space offers its mission as a platform on which sponsors can display their advertising”.
Advertising on the lander. A firm’s logo, etched out by the rover in the dust of the moon. Pictures of that, in HD quality, beamed to the Earth and distributed a zillion-fold via YouTube. In addition to that, one or several other scientific experiments as paid accompanying loads. Anything that can be thought of, everything is possible. By themselves, Toyota, Deutsche Telekom and Panasonic, for example spent around 3.4 billion Euros in advertising in 2009. That’s about as much as the total budget for ESA in the same year.
“A hundredth of this sum would finance our project” Barton estimates. “The undertaking will be achievable with a few very big firms as advertising partners.”
At present, WLS doesn’t want to be too precise about the costs: the mission concept summary gives a figure of 30 million Euros as the upper bound. For the launcher, WLS has chosen the Indian rocket PSLV-XL in a narrow decision. That costs 18 million Euro and has no obvious problems. In fact it has already had one successful mission – in 2008, the PSLV-XL transported the Indian lunar probe “Chandrayaan-1”.
To develop the braking stage for the descent to the moon surface, WLS needs to buy expertise on the open market. According to calculations, the lander will separate from the entry vehicle 13.6 km about the dusty surface. From there on, the lander is responsible for a soft landing. WLS plans to build the necessary braking stage in-house.
And how far have they got with the development?
“Come with me” says Barton, “I’ll show you our mock-up, a full size model”.
The way leads out of the meeting room through the AOES foyer, on whose wall is displayed a large-magnification satellite picture of the Earth. Then on to a conference room, decorated with a meter-long tapestry of pictures of planets, the Milky Way and far galaxies on a totally black background. That’s a fitting backdrop for a moon lander.
The model of the lander consists of wood and cardboard, but looks realistic, wrapped in protective foil as is required for heat insulation in spacecraft, supported by three intricately constructed legs. The whole thing is scarcely 80 cm high. On the platform of the lander is a small vehicle that represents the rover, even if it doesn’t look like it.
Now you need a little imagination if you want to come to grips with the plan.
“On the landing vehicle we’ll install a camera” explains Barton. And in the body will be the electronics for transmission of images to the Earth. The necessary electric current will be provided by a large foldaway solar panel.
If everything goes as planned, the two landing ramps of the lander will be remotely deployed once the lander is on the moon. The rover will be loosened from its connection with the lander and will then roll onto the moon’s surface.
“Just as Lunokhod did for the Soviets” Barton comments.
For the construction material of the flight hardware, the team has secured an experienced partner. Scarcely a half hour distant from Noordwijk, in an industrial district on the outskirts of The Hague, is the firm Airborne International, led by Sandor Woldendorp. This is a firm with around 100 employees, specialising in carbon fibre reinforced materials, so-called composite materials. Out of this black material, the firm builds aeroplane components for Airbus, tubes for oil platforms, or the tethers for the giant solar panels of the Galileo satellites of ESA.
Woldendorp reaches in the shelves next to the wall and draws out a 50 cm length of composite ribbon.
“We bring the technology for the structure, which is needed by WLS” he says, “for the solar panels on the lander, for the ramps, perhaps also for the body of the landing module.”
And what will Airborne get in return? “If it works”, says the manager, “we’ll have a powerful PR effect: a landing on the moon.”
Who will win the race won’t be clear for a long time.
Andrew Barton says: “Technically, Astrobotic have their nose in front. But I believe our chances are not bad.”
Towards the end of the meeting in the AOES conference room, the men are discussing the design of the rover. Astrobotic’s rolling pyramid appears on the screen.
“What do you think?” asks someone in the group, “does this thing have better features than our design?” “I don’t think so” says another.
They will see.
By Jürgen Bischoff
Caption to picture:
Advertising on the Moon: “A spectacular platform on which sponsors can display their advertising.”