Google Lunar XPrize: Testing rovers on the beach with Team Hakuto

Hakuto of Japan is one of the teams vying for the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize. We hit the beach in Hamamatsu to see the team's rovers, MoonRaker and Tetris, in action.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
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Watch this: Google Lunar XPrize: Rovers on the beach with Team Hakuto in Japan

Before you blast off to the moon in search of $30 million offered as part of the Google Lunar XPrize -- or the juicy $20 million grand prize for being the first to get to the moon -- you must make sure all your systems are ready for the harsh realities that exist outside our atmosphere.

Testing in lunar-like conditions while still here on Earth is a complicated thing. Just finding a place remotely like the lunar surface is difficult. However, if you're in Japan, one place reigns supreme: the sand dunes outside Hamamatsu. This is where we found Team Hakuto, lone Japanese team competing for the GLXP, and one of five teams in the running for $6 million in interim, milestone prizes.

Hakuto's lunar rovers cross the sand in Hamamatsu

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Many of Team Hakuto's members made the trip to Hamamatsu from Tohoku University, located far to the north in Sendai. While they escaped a blizzard, they arrived only to find winds well in excess of 30mph and temperatures hovering right around freezing. These were not ideal conditions for wandering up the beach -- nor for driving rovers across it.

Still, Team Hakuto went to work prepping not one, but two rovers: MoonRaker and Tetris. The first, the bigger of the two, is named not after the James Bond novel and movie of the same name, but rather some legendary English smugglers in the 18th century.

According to the tale, on one clear evening two men were using rakes to scour the bottom of a lake in which some barrels of brandy had been hidden to avoid customs. Officers of the law wandered by and asked what they were up to, to which they replied they were attempting to rake some cheese in from the moon. The officers laughed and continued on their way, leaving the smugglers free to recover their stash of booze.

Team Hakuto, is in search of neither dairy products nor spirits, instead hoping to rake in $20 million for being the first commercial team to land on the moon and cover 500 meters while beaming back high-definition footage. However, the team also hopes to check out some lunar real estate, which is where the second rover, Tetris, comes in.

Tetris, the smaller rover that will be dropped down a lava tube on the moon. Tim Stevens/CNET

Tetris is a little two-wheeled guy that follows MoonRaker on a tether. The goal is to lower Tetris through a so-called "skylight" on the lunar surface. Skylights are openings to subterranean lava tubes whose walls are thick enough to shield potential occupants from the violent temperature swings and surface radiation that would make lunar living particularly difficult.

Yes, the first human residents of the moon could live in these caves, and Team Hakuto wants to scope out our potential lunar digs. Of course, if they can do this and take home the $20 million grand prize -- all the better.

See the rest of our Google Lunar XPrize coverage here