A CONTRACT to fly India’s first-ever private space mission to the moon on the PSLV rocket of the Indian Space Research Organisation, as part of the Google Lunar XPrize contest, has been cancelled, ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation confirmed Wednesday.
“Antrix and TeamIndus are mutually terminating the launch services agreement signed in December 2016,” Antrix Corporation chairman Rakesh Sasibhushan said, ending months of speculation on the launch contract signed with TeamIndus, a Bengaluru-based start-up.
Neither Antrix nor TeamIndus have specified the reasons for the termination of the contract but it is believes to be the fallout of multiple causes, including the failure of TeamIndus to raise funds and questions raised about the nature of the contract by the Department of Space and the Space Commission.
The cancellation effectively ends the participation of TeamIndus in the Google Lunar XPrize contest. “TeamIndus has been in talks with the Google Lunar XPrize over the past few weeks and had expressed its inability to meet the 31st March 2018 deadline to complete 500 meter traversal on the moon,” TeamIndus said in a statement Wednesday. The start-up has indicated that the organisers had decided not to extend the Google Lunar XPrize contest deadline.
Though Antrix and TeamIndus never spelt it out officially, reports of the contract being in danger had circulated for over six months. The murmurs first emerged in June 2017, when questions were raised at the government level over the nature of the contract and several specifics involved with the Google Lunar XPrize contest.
A meeting of the Space Commission in July 2017 deferred a decision on the TeamIndus launch contract, even as sources suggested that cancellation of the deal was under consideration due to TeamIndus’s failure to meet payment deadlines.
In an interview to The Indian Express in July 2017, Rahul Narayan, the leader of TeamIndus, had expressed hope of fighting his way through the situation, which he put down essentially to the raising of funds for payments to ISRO for the launch. He said an extension of the deadline for the XPrize contest from December 31, 2017, to March 31, 2018, offered a chance to raise the requisite funds.
“We have been on record to say that this is a $60-million to $70-million mission. We have raised about a third of that and we have a line of sight or visibility on the next third,” Rahul Narayan had said then. “The final third is what we have to now go out and get for ourselves. A big part of the money we have raised has gone into engineering — which is obviously the most expensive and time-consuming part of the mission.”
In November 2017 and in January this year, then ISRO chairman A S Kiran Kumar had indicated that further discussions were needed with TeamIndus on the launch contract following the extension of the contest deadline. Senior ISRO officials associated with TeamIndus at some early stages, however, expressed serious doubts in November 2017 over the fulfilment of the Antrix-TeamIndus launch contract
“TeamIndus lost a launch window because their spacecraft was not ready. They have not been able to make payments. ISRO has lost a PSLV and lots of work needs to be done,’’ the official said. TeamIndus, which is part of a company called Axiom Research Labs, continues to run after the setbacks on several fronts. It is reported to be hopeful of launching its moon mission either outside of India or with ISRO, but at a date subsequent to the deadline.
“Antrix remains committed to encouraging and promoting private enterprise in space. TeamIndus will continue its goal of building a world-class private aerospace company,” the Antrix chief said. “We continue to look towards Antrix and ISRO as our preferred partners of choice for all our future endeavours,” TeamIndus officials said in their statement.
TeamIndus has been backed by the likes of entrepreneur Ratan Tata, technocrats such as former ISRO chairman K Kasturirangan, and Infosys Ltd’s Nandan Nilekani. The Google Lunar XPrize for the first private mission to the moon will bring $20 million to the winners who land a rover on the moon and get it to travel a distance of 500 metres. The second team will win $5 million, and there are bonus prizes of $1.75 million for completing an orbit around the moon or descending directly on its surface. There is also a $3 million prize for transmitting data from the moon after a soft landing on the lunar surface.
When the competition was first announced in 2007, there were 34 entries to be the first private mission to the moon. Since then, the number has dwindled to four. XPrize had announced last year that the five teams with verified launch contracts were SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express (USA), Synergy Moon (International), TeamIndus (India) and HAKUTO (Japan). The Japanese team had signed a deal with TeamIndus to piggyback on the PSLV rocket.