Testing a rover on Earth's most moon-like dunes

This is the latest in a series of reports by CNET Editor at Large Tim Stevens, who is traveling around the world to track the progress of teams competing for the Google Lunar XPrize.

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

However, testing for the Moon while here on Earth is a complicated thing, and finding a place that replicates the lunar surface is difficult. If you're in Japan, one place reigns supreme: the sand dunes outside Hamamatsu.

Hamamatsu is a major industrial city in Japan. It lies on the coast, about 90 minutes by bullet train from downtown Tokyo. For many members of Hakuto, the lone Japanese team competing for the Google Lunar XPrize, it was an even longer trip. For them, Tohoku University in Sendai is home, which lies well to the north.

The team escaped an unexpected blizzard, arriving in Hamamatsu only to find winds well in excess of 30 miles per hour (about 13 meters per second) and temperatures hovering right around the freezing point. 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, a pair designed to explore the lunar surface together. The first is called MoonRaker, named not after the James Bond novel nor the 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 at the yokels and continued on their way, leaving the smugglers free to recover their 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. Hakuto, though, hopes to do something additional, which is where the second rover comes in.

The little two-wheeled guy is called Tetris, and its job is to be dropped down on a tether into a so-called "skylight" on the Moon. Skylights are openings to lava tubes, and while the mere suggestion of exploring beneath the lunar surface is fascinating, there's actually a very practical reason for doing so.

Consider this: If you're looking to build a house on the Moon, wouldn't it be better to move in somewhere that already has walls and a floor? That's especially true when those walls are thick enough to shield you from the violent temperature swings and surface radiation that make lunar living particularly difficult.

So, the first human residents of the moon could live in caves, and Hakuto wants to scope out the potential housing situation. Of course, if they can do it before any of the other Google Lunar XPrize teams and take home the $20 million Grand Prize along the way, all the better.

Complete coverage of the Google Lunar XPrize on CNET.