With six months left in the race for private missions to land a rover on the moon and win a $20 million Google Lunar X Prize, an Indian team, which is among four remaining in the fray, is yet to get final approval for launching its rover on board a PSLV XL rocket of the Indian Space Research Organisation.
Team Indus, a Bengaluru start-up aspiring to be the first Indian private space company, signed a contract with ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation for a launch but is now awaiting clearance for the launch ahead of a December 31 deadline. The competitors to be the first private mission to the moon has dwindled from 34 in the early days — after the Google Lunar X Prize was announced in 2007 — to a mere four Tuesday as teams have dropped out for various reasons including many over the last year for failing to clinch a viable launch contract with private or government space agencies with launch capabilities.
Team Indus and a Japanese team, Hakuto, are contracted to fly on ISRO’s PSLV XL rocket on December 28, 2017, three days before the closure of the deadline for the Google X Prize contest. The two teams will share the nearly $30 million commercial cost for the launch.
“The necessary approvals for launch of the Team Indus moon mission has not yet concluded. An MoU was signed last year by Antrix Corporation and Team Indus. The launch service has to be authorised by the government and the approval process is going on,” Antrix chairman and managing director Rakesh Sasibhushan said. Sources in ISRO said the MoU is under scrutiny and various questions are being asked about the nature of the launch, the Google Lunar X Prize competition and intellectual property issues involved.
“We have not heard of any questions being raised by the government. We have a launch contract that was signed last year,’’ Team Indus leader Rahul Narayan said when contacted. A private company, Axiom Research Labs Ltd, is the start-up that created Team Indus.
The mission is expected to cost Team Indus in the range of $ 70 million to build its moon rover and spacecraft from scratch and to launch it to the moon. The venture has received the backing of the likes of Ratan Tata, Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, Flipkart founders Sachin and Binny Bansal, TVS Group’s Venu Srinivasan, stock market investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and many tech sector start-up investors. The final launch deal in the Google Lunar X Prize contest has been the Achilles heel of teams that have been in the fray until now even as they have worked on engineering and building spacecrafts and rovers that can traverse 500 metres on the moon after landing.
Asked how they were going about securing a launch deal, prior to their late 2016 MoU with Antrix, a Team Indus member told a Reddit forum that their formula was “Love. Hope. Pray — repeat”.
The Google Lunar X Prize, when announced in 2007, was scheduled to conclude in 2012. However the contest has undergone many rule changes and extensions of deadlines to enable contestants to take a shot at sending a private spacecraft to the moon. One of the biggest challenges faced by all start-up teams has been in finding agencies to carry out the expensive launch. Israeli start-up SpaceIL was the first to sew up a commercial space launch deal in 2015 to fly their 500 kg spacecraft aboard the Falcon 9 rocket of the private space firm SpaceX. That deal renewed interest in the contest. There are however reports now indicating that the Israeli team has deferred its moon shot to 2019 on account of scheduling issues.
Two other teams with verified launch contracts, Moon Express from the US and the international team Synergy Moon, are still in the race to be the first private venture on the moon, alongside Team Indus and the Japanese team Hakuto. The Moon Express and Synergy Moon missions are set to be launched in the second half of the year by space companies whose rockets are not tried and tested. As many as seven global teams that have dropped out of the race to be the first private mission to the moon, meanwhile, continue efforts to travel to the moon in due course.osh