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Team Indus could be the world’s first privately funded moon mission

The indian space programme has garnered quite a few laurels so far thanks largely to ISRO. Now with Team Indus and its performance in the Google Lunar XPrize, there’s more reason to rejoice.

One of the five remaining teams in Google’s Lunar XPrize competition, Team Indus needs no introduction to space geeks worldwide. Over the years since the announcement of the XPrize, they have conquered milestone after milestone until they are finally looking at a launch aboard an ISRO PSLV later this year. However, the journey so far wasn’t a walk in the park – if anything, it was a flight. Let us explore how a team of four enthusiastic engineers from India went on to become one of the leading contenders in the race to privatising the exploration of the Moon.

Team Indus

Spur of the moment

Back in the day when Rahul Narayan was a full-fledged IT professional, over a screen-shared call with a client he chanced upon the Google Lunar XPrize as a wallpaper. With his curiosity piqued, he dug deeper and realised that he could lend his software expertise to any Indian team in the competition – that is, until he found out on the very last day of registration that there were no Indian teams enrolled. A spur of the moment and a couple of months later, Team Indus had registered for the competition with funds arranged by Narayan himself and soon enough, Narayan and his initial teammates were Googling “how to get a spacecraft”.

Initial challenges

Having made the dive head-first, Team Indus spent most of 2012 hiring more team members and formulating a feasible mission design. The team comprises of quite a few ex-ISRO scientists, apart from aerospace engineers from across the nation. 2013 was dedicated towards actually demarcating areas that needed to be tackled and restructuring the workforce of the organisation to achieve that. From there, till today, they have 12 different subsystems, and as many departments, in the organisation, some of which are:

  • Structures team
  • Thermal design team
  • Mission team
  • Microelectronics team
  • Software team
  • Flight dynamics team
  • Communications team
  • Rover team

At that point, they were staring at overcoming the numerous technical challenges, and along with those, the single biggest hurdle – funds. Towards the end of 2013, an announcement from the XPrize foundation posed new challenges, and new opportunities along with it.

Team Indus
Here’s a look at the evolution of Rovers over the years

Technical challenges

One of their first specific technical challenges came in the form of the Terrestrial Milestone prizes. Towards the end of 2013, with only two more years at that point to achieve the goal of landing on the moon, The Google Lunar XPrize foundation felt a deadlock in most team’s work. One of the primary reasons behind this was a global economic slowdown, so the foundation decided to help the teams by announcing the Terrestrial Milestone Prizes. In this, the foundation announced a total of $6 million to be awarded through 2014 to teams achieving successful system demonstrations of Landing, Mobility and Imaging. TeamIndus was awarded a prize of $1 million for the landing category, which was not only a huge help with funds at that point but also a strong validation of their efforts so far by an esteemed group of scientists.

Apart from this specific challenge, overall technical issues have been faced and are being worked on by the team. For instance, the autonomous descent from orbit to surface is a critical juncture that could make or break the mission, as little is known about the lunar surface in terms of exact topography. Along with that, the radiation in outer space poses a serious threat to the craft and its cargo.

All these challenges are being worked on and overcome one by one by a team comprising of, among others, 20 ex-ISRO scientists, some of whom have worked on the iconic early space efforts of ISRO like the Aryabhatta satellite. On the other hand, requirements for funds are also being worked on from multiple avenues.

LAB2MOON

TeamIndus held a Lab2Moon competition, a global challenge for students under 25 years of age to imagine, design and build a project that could accelerate human evolution into a sustainable multi-planetary species. The teams that won are:

  • Team Space4Lab (Italy): to test feasibility of making a Radiation Shield Using Bacteria.
  • Team Zoi (Kolkata, India): to test if proper photosynthesis can take place on the moon by Extremophile Cyanobacteria.

Funds

There are mainly four different ways in which TeamIndus has acquired their funds so far:

  • Equity: This has been their primary source of income, something that has kept their bills covered so far and will be doing so till the end of mission. Investors so far include Ratan Tata of Tata Group, Flipkart co-founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, Nandan Nilekani, co-founder Infosys, and many more.
  • Sponsorship: With this mode, brands can get themselves to the moon – something that has been achieved by very few brands such as Hasselblad cameras and Omega watches. These will be premium payloads aboard the spacecraft.
  • Commercial payloads: Apart from the previous section, the spacecraft will be capable of an overall 20kg payload (7.5kgs out of which is already dedicated to their own rover ECA) and some other quantity has been sold to Team Hakuto, another XPrize team. Team Indus is in advanced talks with other customers for the rest of the payload.
  • Backing campaigns: There are certain campaigns ongoing on their website to get your name to the moon by inscribing it on a small sized aluminium object for a fee of ₹500.

The final stretch

Another condition that Google had put was that only teams with verified launch contracts by December 2016 would be allowed to continue in the competition. In November 2016, Team Indus signed a contract with Antrix corporation, the commercial arm of ISRO, confirming a launch date of December 28, 2017. The contract was verified later that month, making them the fourth team qualified to continue. A little known fact is that they are one of the two teams (ignoring Hakuto, which is going to piggyback on the same PSLV as TeamIndus) whose contracts are with agencies which have actually reached space with the specified craft already. The other one is Team SpaceIL, which has a launch contract with SpaceX aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Another crucial missing aspect – which had initially not allowed them to qualify for the Imaging part of the Terrestrial Milestone Prize – has been resolved with their agreement with the French National Space Agency CNES inked in January this year. Under this agreement, they will be carrying latest-generation CMOS micro-cameras developed in partnership with French firm 3DPlus – which allows CNES to test its cameras while TeamIndus gets the cameras it needs for the mission.

MOONSHOT WHEELS

With the goal of teaching rural students about space missions and their own lunar landing program, Team Indus, along with Agastya International Foundation, has started an initiative called Moonshot Wheels. Under this initiative, a bus will be travelling to 11 states where it will cover a distance of over 12500 km. The mission aims to interact with over 36,000 students in government schools and teach them about space exploration.

Countdown to launch

Currently, Team Indus is in the final stages of its preparation for the launch. They have already started building a qualification model, which is something that will help them identify crucial errors or scope of improvement in the final stages of their mission. These tests, to be completed over the next two-and-a-half weeks or so, will involve a craft design that will be completely system integrated, only not containing the engine and some other components which will be tested separately. Post these tests, another two weeks will be spent on analysing the results before the final model is built and sent off to ISRO – after another round of testing!

ISRO will be performing their own set of tests on the craft to ensure its launch readiness before the actual launch aboard their own PSLV on December 28, 2017.

Team Indus
What the Team Indus rover that rolls on to the moon could look like

All aboard the Moon express

If you’re thinking that Team Indus has no plans to continue after their maiden moonshot, you couldn’t be further away from the truth. Team Indus has stated a desire to work on further moon missions with the objective of making it economical to travel to the moon and someday, colonise it. A crucial part of this would be increasing the payload possible without increasing costs as well as more robust spacecraft design.

Another long term goal that Team Indus has is prototyping a communications satellite that can be mass-produced at very cheap rates in the future, so that organisations and even individuals can dream of reaching space with relatively lower costs involved. With the motivation of a prize to be won and putting India’s name on the moon as the first country to have a privatised moon landing, Team Indus is definitely going places… places that have been generally considered out of reach for India. Well, not anymore!

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.