How a space company in Hungary became an upstart in the private moon industry

A new NASA competition challenged scientists to develop a small, lightweight rover to explore the moon in search of water. Here's how Puli Space came up with the winner.

One Hungarian company's NASA challenge

Since Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, scientists' understanding of the astronomical body has changed radically. At around 400,000 kilometers, some call the moon the "eighth continent." Scientists know about its orbital path, its craters, formed by lava, and the frozen bodies of water that speckle its surface. Yet there is still critical information not known about the lunar body—particularly when it comes to the topography. 

A new competition from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, called "Honey I Shrunk the NASA Payload," challenged scientists and engineers to develop a tiny, lightweight device to explore the moon and search for water.

The winner? A small Hungarian space company called Puli Space. Headed by Tibor Pacher, in Budapest, Hungary, Puli Space invented the Lunar Water Snooper. 

"Water is one of the Holy Grails, the thing people are looking for on the moon," Pacher said. "I believe it will be a very good business, but it's still a high risk one."

The Snooper, still in the conception phase, uses CMOS commercial sensors and nuclear reactions, which makes it possible to quantify hydrogen in the soil. Water, Pacher said, is an invaluable resource. "Water ice is hydrogen and oxygen," he said, "and if you split them, hydrogen is rocket fuel," which can power a station up in space. The Snooper detects hydrogen based on a nuclear process and maps the location.

SEE: NASA's unsung heroes: The Apollo coders who put men on the moon (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Puli Space launched almost exactly a decade ago, in June 2010, initially as an 11-member Hungarian team. When the group formed, it set to work on competing for the international Google Lunar XPRIZE, building a spacecraft to explore the moon, covering at least 500 meters and capturing images. 

"We have a pretty good heritage and engineering talent," Pacher explained. "So I just said, 'OK, let's try to do this here in Hungary.'" Now, there are 18 members, and while the majority are Hungarians, many living across Europe, the staff also includes someone from Poland.  

"Space was a kind of childhood love, a very early love," Pacher said. "I grew up in the '60s, during the Apollo time—the very first time of human flight." When he was 9, he said he was "cheering Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon surface." Later, he channeled this enthusiasm into his work as a physicist, studying cosmology.

Puli Space is now working on a small rover, Puli, that can survive in extreme environments and can measure and communicate information about the moon. Pacher wants Hungary to be one of the first countries to send a rover to the moon.

"We know much more about the moon now," he said. Back then, "nobody knew what was on the surface. So, it was feared that if something is landing there, all the astronauts would just sink in the regolith [soil]." 

Pacher's interest in the moon branches into other areas, such as, whether there could be commercial purposes for the moon, and what the moon can teach us about planets like Mars. 

"Can we really set up a working economy on the moon?" Pacher asked. "Can you use not only government money, but private money?" These are the big questions and debates."

Puli Space, Pacher says, is on the forefront of private industry, which he said was in a "very nascent phase."

The Luxembourg Space Agency estimated a minimum market of up to 170 billion euros by 2045 and invested 70 million euros into a space venture fund.

"In the coming years, we will see the birth of this kind of industry, because private companies are building the landers," Pacher said. "NASA is buying private landers and private missions to the moon. And there are a lot of interesting resources which could be used." 

As for future moon visits, the Chinese plan to go to the moon in 2020 or 2021. India is also on the list, as well as Japan. Pacher says he'd like to join one of the US missions—Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company, could be a partner, for instance. In 2022, if they're lucky, Pacher says, they could go with the Snooper, and send their own rover, as well.

SEE: Photos: 60 years of NASA's technological accomplishments

Hungary began its history in space exploration, Pacher said, in 1946, when engineer Zoltán Bay sent radar to the Moon and it bounced back. During the Soviet era, in 1980, Hungary was the seventh country to send someone into space--Bertalan Farkas was in space for seven days. It plans to send its second person to space in 2024.

While Hungary is not a big leader in space, it has had small and important successes, including developing Smog, the smallest operating satellite, which is 5x5x5 cm.

"Nobody believed that it would work, and it worked for eight months, and delivered results," he said. "That's what we want to do from Hungary."

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