Reaching the Moon is a feat few countries have accomplished. Thus far, only the US, Russia, and China have arrived on our planet’s only natural satellite. Now, a team of Malaysians is racing the rest of the world to become the next country to land on the Moon; and they will do it without any government funding.
Mohd Izmir Yamin is the founder of Independence-X Aerospace (IDXA) – the only Malaysian team left in the Google Lunar XPrize. IDXA outlasted 15 other teams to reach the final stages of the competition to be the first privately funded company to put a lander on the Moon. While the XPrize is offering money for being the first team to accomplish the feat, Izmir has much bigger plans for IDXA than just beating everyone else to the lunar surface.
Izmir has been building rockets since he was in secondary school; starting with simple bottle rockets and eventually graduating to proper solid fuel rockets during his time studying in UiTM. It was during this time that he founded IDXA as a special interest group; the same IDXA that would later be incorporated as a business in 2013.
For Izmir, Malaysia has massive potential in the growing space travel market. The location of the country near the equator provides advantages not available to more developed Western countries. Launch locations near the equator are extremely important for space companies and organisations. NASA is based in Florida, which is the closest point in the US to the to the equator; while the European Space Agency similarly launches satellites from French Guyana to achieve the same savings.
“We are located in a very strategic location to launch rockets into space; which is near the equator. Which means that we can save on 20- to 30-percent on fuel. Launching into space is very costly. A minimum mass of 1,000kg will cost about $4000 per kilogramme to launch. If you go less than that, it will go up to $200,000 per kilogramme,” said Izmir during an exclusive interview at Petrosains in KLCC
“Secondly, you will also require fewer ground stations for tracking. That’s why you see many space companies starting off from the equator.”
Currently, IDXA is leveraging this advantage while also working on a launch system that is more cost effective than its competitors around the globe. It plans to do this by launching a much smaller rocket; one that is almost half the size of a conventional launch vehicle. This will also be combined with a significantly smaller payload – one that only weighs 150kg.
Race to the night sky
The Google Lunar XPrize – also known as Moon 2.0 – requires competitors to land a payload on the surface on the Moon and transmit images back to Earth. It was announced back in 2007; with teams expected to produce results by the end of 2012. This deadline was extended to 2014 when it became clear that no team would be able to meet the original timeline. A second extension was later imposed; allowing teams to attempt to reach the Moon by the end of 2017.
Winning the Lunar XPrize requires more than just dropping a payload on the Moon. Google requires the winner to have deployed a vehicle of some sort that is capable of taking pictures of the surface. This vehicle will also have to have moved at least 500m during its stay on the lunar surface to take the $20 million grand prize.
Funding is a massive problem when attempting to reach into space. The American Apollo 11 programme which put three men on the Moon cost the Nixon administration some $25 billion (about RM100 billion); which is equivalent to $150 billion (about RM600 billion) today when adjusted for inflation. At the time, money was no problem; as the US feared that it was lagging behind Russia in the Space Race. Of course, this was mainly due to the Russians being the first to land a probe on the Moon in 1959, and followed it with Yuri Gagarin’s historical orbital flight two years later.
Today, the companies like IDXA have other concerns. The goal of modern space companies is to commercialise and privatise space travel; leaving them without government funding. Some, like the famous Space X by Elon Musk, are funded by billionaires; others are left looking for corporate sponsors who may have some interest in financing interstellar travel.
“It’s never easy to raise the funds, especially coming from this part of the world. Even American teams themselves are having problems. That’s why the competition has been delayed twice,” says Izmir.
IDXA itself is looking for possible corporate sponsors who would like to get their logos on the Moon. It is also, however, looking to crowd fund the venture through a scheme known as The Moon Men project. From this, backers will be able to have their names written on a special flag that will be planted on the Moon (separate flags will also be carried for corporate sponsors; along with flags for Malaysia and ASEAN).
Fortunately, costs for space travel have dropped significantly since the 1960s. China’s 2013 Chang’e 3 mission cost about $120 million (about RM482 million); while a Lunar orbiter from India managed to accomplish the feat for only $80 million (about RM320 million).
“The cheapest was India, because they used a low energy transfer method. If you go straight (to the Moon) then you will burn a lot more fuel. If you do a slingshot effect from the Earth’s gravitational pull, then you can save a lot of fuel, but you have to do multiple rounds of orbit,” says Izmir.
“We are trying to do something similar, but with a different approach. We’re recalculating everything that we can and we are going to innovate things on our journey towards the moon; especially in the amount of fuel that we carry. Ours will be half the mass of the cheapest mission to the Moon; and at 20-percent of the cost.”
IDXA is looking into getting to the Moon for just $23 million (about RM92 million); which would make it the cheapest ever Moon mission. However, Izmir concedes that the $20million (about RM80 million) prize money offered by the Lunar XPrize is not enough to cover the costs of developing and launching a rocket. For him, participation in the competition opens doors that would normally be closed to an Asian private company. This includes the R&D labs at NASA, among other things.
Why do we do it?
Reaching into the stars is more than just a scientific feat; it is also a showcase of a nation’s technological progress. It is an announcement to the world that this people have entered the 21st century, and are able to contribute to the advancement of mankind. That is why countries like China and India have accelerated their own space programmes.
Education and research is one of the primary concerns for space programmes; and Izmir believes that IDXA has the potential to offer affordable launch vehicles for R&D purposes. These includes deploying weather satellites and transporting lab-on-a-chip devices into low orbit.
More importantly, having launch vehicle facilities brings with it some economic benefit; especially in the telecommunications space. Izmir reasons that deploying nano and pico satellites will save telcos money in the long run; as these orbital stations are capable of covering wider areas compared to their terrestrial counterparts.
“If you’re talking about a standard telco tower on the ground, it only covers a certain radius and your telco charges are very expensive. This is because the maintenance of the tower is expensive. You need to pay for rental of the BTS, the electricity, signal maintenance, and traffic control. So there’s a lot of cost involved in having that tower,” says Izmir.
The IDXA founder believes that the range benefits offered by satellites outweigh those offered by traditional Base Transceiver Stations (BTS); as they are able to cover larger areas. Izmir points out that most BTS are configured to cover as little as 5km², while the pico and nano satellites he hopes to deploy will have a 300km² radio-frequency footprint.
This may be a simplification of matters. BTS still offer some advantages over satellites; especially in urbans areas with many high-rise buildings. However, Izmir’s idea is not too different from Google and Facebook’s plans to bring internet connectivity to rural areas. While the internet giants are currently staying away from satellites due to cost reasons, IDXA could potentially offer an alternative solution in the future.
What comes next?
IDXA believes it is capable of reaching the Moon before the competition; and it has good reason for this. Only two of its rivals have managed to secure funding for a launch vehicle; although neither is any closer to launch readiness.
However, the Moon is only a stepping stone for the future. Izmir aims to conduct a privately funded mission to Mars in the future. After all, if India can do it, so can we.
The difference with future launch plans is that IDXA will be building its own launch facilities right here in Malaysia. This allows it to operate independently, and skip the additional costs of having to rent a launch pad from other countries. The Malaysian space centre will be funded by IDXA itself; and Izmir hopes to be able to begin construction within five to seven years.
For now, Izmir and IDXA are concentrating on winning the Google Lunar XPrize. Its ability to remain in the competition for this long is a testament to the hard work and determination of the 30-man team. Even if they fail to win the competition, Malaysia’s only rocket company is already well on its way to international recognition; and will keep pushing the country to the forefront of private space expeditions.
“Our rocket design for the seven-year programme has been approved by NASA. If you want to have a look, it is in the public domain from December 2015. It’s a small space craft with state-of-the-art technology,” says Izmir.
“We are quite proud to have our own Malaysian design in TRL2. Meaning Technology Readiness Level 2, and if you reach [level] 10 that means you have a launchable product. It’s there, and they will keep requesting annual updates from us. So we are in their good books already.”