Bengaluru group one of four racing for lunar touchdown

SpaceIL of Israel and Moon Express of the United States were the first to sign their launch contracts, followed by Synergy Moon, a team that has groups working in as many as 15 countries.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | New Delhi | Updated: February 15, 2017 10:51 am

If all goes well, then by the end of this year or in the first few days of the next, India could become the fourth country to land on the moon. And the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would have only an incidental role to play in it.

A group of amateur space enthusiasts, helped by some retired scientists from ISRO, is in a race with four other teams from across the world to land a spacecraft on moon and win a $20-million prize being offered by XPRIZE, a non-profit organisation that runs competitions like these to spur innovation and promote technology development. The prize for the race to moon is sponsored by Google and, hence, called the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

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The Bengaluru-based Indian group, that goes by the name of Team Indus, is frantically putting together its lunar spacecraft that it plans to fly on ISRO’s launch vehicle — this is the only connection that India’s space agency has with this mission — in the last week of December. After launch, the spacecraft can take between one and three weeks, depending on the final flight path and a lot of other variables, to touch down on the moon’s surface.

The $20-million prize money is meant for the team that will be the first to successfully land its spacecraft on moon, let it travel at least 500 metres on the surface, and transmit high definition pictures and videos back to earth. The second team to successfully achieve this would receive a prize money of $5 million. There are a variety of bonus prizes as well for accomplishing different kinds of scientific achievements.

The exact launch dates of the teams are not finalised as yet, though all of them are set to fly sometime in the second half of this year. SpaceIL of Israel and Moon Express of the United States were the first to sign their launch contracts, followed by Synergy Moon, a team that has groups working in as many as 15 countries. Team Hakuto of Japan is not sending a separate spacecraft. Instead, it has built just a rover that will hitch a ride on the Team Indus spacecraft. Once they exit from the spacecraft, the rovers of the two teams will try to outdo each other to fulfil the competitions requirements.

“The date of the launch does not solely decide who lands first on the moon. There are lots of other factors involved. We will see,” says Dilip Chabria, an engineer who is one of the four who started Team Indus in 2010 with the specific purpose of participating in the XPRIZE competition. Chabria now looks after business development and corporate relations of the team.

If Team Indus is able to land on moon ahead of the teams from Israel and Japan, it would make India only the fourth country to have done so. So far, only the United States, the former USSR, and China, which landed in 2013, have achieved this feat. ISRO’s Chandrayaan mission in 2008 had involved the crash-landing of one of the payloads on the moon’s surface, but that is not counted as successful landing. The Chandrayaan-2 mission, slated for the first quarter of next year, will have a rover that will land on the moon and move around to carry out scientific experiments. By that time, however, Team Indus would most likely have already registered its presence on the lunar surface.

Having experienced the excitement of putting together a space mission, Team Indus has already begun looking for a future beyond the competition, irrespective of its outcome. Chabria says his team would like to evolve in a space technology company providing products and services to clients seeking to send payloads into space.

“We started with the sole objective of participating in the competition but now that we have reached this far, we are here to stay. If you look at it, our total mission cost is going to be in the region of about $75 million. The prize will not bring us any returns. But it is a good investment. There are opportunities for us to provide our know-how, technology and services to others, and we surely would like to establish ourselves in that domain,” he said.

Team Indus has already notched up about a dozen patents and several more are in the pipeline. It has also begun working on a communication satellite which can be leased by clients for putting their payloads.

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