The fledgeling Team Indus will tie up with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) with the aim of hoisting India’s flag through an unmanned spacecraft on the lunar surface on January 26, 2018, the 69th Republic Day. Team Indus is a group of youngsters who are hedging their bets on winning the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize. Team Indus comprises about 100 people mostly engineers and are led by a visionary Rahul Narayan who in his earlier avatar was a software worker and calls himself a serial entrepreneur but who in 2010, when the Google Prize Lunar X Prize was almost closing, decided to take a shot at the moon.
Team Indus is the only Indian team in this Google-sponsored global effort. Narayan says they have personally explained the mission to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has extended his blessings to the young team. Since 2010, Narayan has collected a bunch youngsters mostly students fresh out of college who have made it their single minded desire to become the first private Indian company to reach the moon.
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Team Indus has roped in angel investors like Nandan Nilekani and Ratan Tata and space sages like K Kasturirangan as advisors and have till date managed to garner some Rs 100 crore in funding for a total expected mission cost of about Rs 400 crore. Narayan confirms they have already spent the first one hundred crore. To make up for the thin experience in flying to distances as far as 400,000 km away the founders of Team Indus have recruited some two dozen retired hands from ISRO who provide the necessary brain that the young brawn ably provides.
Team Indus has just procured a launch services agreement with Antrix Corporation Ltd., the commercial arm of ISRO to source India’s highly reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV. Rakesh Sasibhushan, Chairman Cum Managing Director, Antrix Corporation, Bengaluru confirms, “Yes we have signed a launch services agreement with Team Indus which essentially provides a PSLV launch for launching a lunar orbiter and lander sometime in the fourth quarter of 2017.”
This is for the very first time ISRO is making what it calls “a precious national resource in PSLV” available albeit at a still undisclosed cost to a private Indian company. As part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition which after an extension of two deadlines is likely to end by 2017 before which all the competing teams which number about three dozen have to kick off their moon shot.
As off now, one Israeli team and two American teams have procured launch contracts and are close contenders for the prize. Towards what Team Indus calls ‘Har Indian Ka Moonshot’ in the next 12 months it has to build from scratch a satellite that will lift off from India’s space port Sriharikota atop riding on the PSLV, the same then has to make a soft landing on the moon and then a rover will have to slip out.
To finally win the prize the rules stipulate that the rover has to move 500 m on the lunar surface and should be able to beam back high definition images back to earth. Team Indus claims they are now among the top four contenders for the prize and they already bagged USD 1 million milestone prize from Google. This has buoyed their spirits and today among the half a dozen other serious contenders only Team Indus has a “verified contract” to launch on a highly reliable globally acclaimed rocket.
Vivek Raghavan, lead for technology at Team Indus also called Jedi Master (Tech) – bringing an aura of a Star Wars like setting – says, “As part of the Google Lunar X Prize, there are obviously many teams in the beginning. There are still 16 teams in the competition. But the number of teams that actually have a launch contract are very few. We’ve been ranked among the top 3 teams in the world in the competition.”
In contrast ISRO has been plodding along since 2008 with its much anticipated Chandrayaan-2 mission a massive exercise to indigenously make an orbiter, a soft lander and a rover that will be blasted into space according to Jitendra Singh, the Minister for Space Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office in the first quarter of 2018.
ISRO is hoping to deploy its heavy weight launcher the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) which has had a rather patchy record and was dubbed by ISRO as its ‘naughty boy’ for this prestigious mission. Chandrayaan-2 is a heavy weight over 3000 kg satellite in comparison Team Indus’s puny satellite weighing 600 kg baby, but with broadly similar goals. Truly a race between a truck and a Nano!
Rahul Narayan says ISRO and Team Indus are not competitors in the unfolding ‘Indian moon race’. He likens ‘Team Indus to be playing a T-20 cricket match as against ISRO playing full-fledged Test match with Chandrayaan-2’.
A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman, ISRO who in a statement to Team Indus said, “If you treat space as the new frontier, then who better than the next generation of people who bring in new innovative approaches. We want to see there is enough capacity to make use of the knowledge in India for the world market.”
For Team Indus, the launch window starts on December 28, 2017, the PSLV will inject the spacecraft into an orbit 880 km x 70,000 km around the Earth. The spacecraft will then undertake a soft land in Mare Imbrium, a region in the north-western hemisphere of the Moon.
Narayan adds, “We have a very young team and I must say we’ve got a bright bunch of folks here. We’ve managed to break down the problem to many pieces and till date we’ve done reasonably well.
“We’ve had a few failures, but I think we’ve had more success than failures. In addition to our young team, we obviously have several retired ISRO scientists who are architects of what we’re building today. It is a challenging task, but I think we set out to be able to build the spacecraft.”
But now that ISRO has positioned itself and given a green signal for Team Indus to use the PSLV a rocket that in its heritage has the 2008 Chandrayaan-1 launch can the upstart team from Bengaluru expect a cake walk to the rocket port.
When asked if ISRO was taking a risk by allowing an inexperienced player to launch on the PSLV, Sasibhushan, said, “Not really, all satellites that have to fly on the PSLV have to undergo a qualification test and we will ensure that the [Team Indus] satellite is worthy of flying on the PSLV and unless it passes all tests we will not be able to fly it in PSLV.”
In 2008, India fought and lost a marathon race to reach the moon against China when Chandrayaan-1 lost out to China’s maiden mission to the moon Chang’e-1, the Indian government never really pardoned ISRO for that loss of face. ISRO is still smarting on not becoming the first Asian nation to reach the lunar orbit so will it be large hearted to let an Indian start up once again take lead in placing India’s flag on the moon.