View from India: HarIndianKaMoonshot for Google Lunar XPrize

TeamIndus, a space technology startup, is the only Indian participant in the $30m Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP) competition. The Bangalore-based startup has built a spacecraft with a rover that will hopefully land and explore the lunar surface in early 2018. The rover will capture high-quality images as it travels 500m over the Moon's surface, sending them back to Earth.

TeamIndus, which is among the five global finalists to participate in the competition, has already crossed a milestone as an international panel of judges representing Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP) has validated the spacecraft built at its headquarters in Jakkur, Bangalore. This will be the first privately funded entity to land on the Moon.

TeamIndus has over 100 engineers and 20 former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists who help design and develop the proprietary technology, which has been a challenge.

“When we embarked on the rover mission, we were constrained by the payload. To overcome the payload, we decided to build a rover whose mass is minimum and the mechanism is simple. Yet in order to be part of the competition, it had to meet all the essential requirements of a rover such as reliability and capability,” said Dr P.S.Nair, senior scientist.

Given this mandate, the team set out making a micro-robotic rover. The all-terrain rover has been designed with a simple locomotion system and advance materials have been integrated into the vehicle to maintain minimum mass. Conducive aluminum has been used to ensure thermal management on the Moon.

“The vehicle is a four wheeler and its wheels are big enough to negotiate in the lunar terrain, taking into account various aspects like craters, stones and sloped surfaces. With a weight close to 7kg, this could probably be the lightest and smallest rover of its kind which has been visualised so far,” added Dr Nair.

When the team plunged into the thick of things, the outcome turned out to be a small capable robotic vehicle designed with a solar panel to generate power and a camera to capture panoramic photographs.

TeamIndus has a contract for a launch aboard ISRO’s workhorse launch vehicle PSLV-XL. The spacecraft will launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. The PSLV-XL will inject the spacecraft into Earth orbit. From there on, the spacecraft will set course to the Moon by switching on its own engines in a series of complex orbital maneuvers. The team is targeting to land on the Moon, deploy the TeamIndus rover ECA and beam high-definition media back to Earth. The spacecraft journey will take about 24-28 days, with two orbits round the Earth and four around the Moon.

The rover is a labour of love. As Sheelika Ravishankar, ‘Jedi master, marketing and outreach’ put it, “It’s all about going to the Moon, both literally and figuratively. That’s because literally our spacecraft will land on the Moon in 2018 and figuratively it is expected to impact people. The fact that a private organisation has made it to the Moon itself will be something to reckon with.”

The beginning of TeamIndus winds back many years, to 2009 to be specific. Space enthusiast Rahul Narayan had heard about the Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP) competition. At that time, all he wanted was that India should participate in the competition and, in good faith, Narayan was willing to support the team in his own capacity.

As luck would have it, no such thing happened. All it required was some prodding from the GLXP jury. They put forth the idea that Narayan himself should participate in the competition. Gradually, the space enthusiast began to believe that one needs to be “the change you want to see in the world”.

That thought bubble led to the initiation of TeamIndus in 2011 in Noida, located in the national capital region, which encompasses the entire national capital territory of Delhi. It became an opportunity for positive disruption, though at that time Narayan and his team hardly knew what it takes to build a spacecraft.

“We only knew we had to go to the Moon and we tried figuring it out by Googling. Based on the seriousness of purpose, we strategically built the project bit by bit,” recalled Ravishankar. The beginning of this amazing journey happened with a prototype, which had its expected teething problems. Initially, it didn’t have propulsion as there weren’t propulsion engineers on board.

As a startup, Narayan knew that believing in his idea is easy, but getting others to believe it is difficult. “A meeting with Dr K Kasturirangan, then member (science) in the planning commission, Government of India, gave clarity to our vision. After our fruitful deliberations, we shifted from Noida to Bangalore in 2013,” said Ravishankar. Without wasting much time, Narayan and his initial six-member team built a workforce comprising engineers and retired scientists from ISRO. The startup grabbed eyeballs as funding poured in, from leading industrialists to stock market investors.

In early 2015, the startup had won $1m through GLXP’s Terrestrial Milestone Prize for demonstrating its landing technology. This time, the team has built a second spacecraft for the Google Lunar XPrize competition. The mission deadline which was December 28 2017 has been extended to March 2018. Early next year, TeamIndus will launch its rover.

“With the completion of this engineering review, it is now all about putting our heads down and not resting until we reach the Moon. We see this engineering review as well as the support from the panel as validation that we are on the right path. We will now be integrating the learnings from the review into fine-tuning the mission in the days ahead,” said Rahul Narayan, fleet commander, TeamIndus, in a press release.

As a private space mission, the startup is in the process of reaching out to the masses with its Moon mission through its Hindi slogan, titled ‘HarIndianKaMoonshot’. This captures the spirit of the Indian community since it translates as ‘Every Indian’s Shot at the Moon’. The attempt is to inspire the next three or four generations by igniting a spark in space exploration.

HarIndianKaMoonshot reaches out to school students through a bus that engages students with rover experiments and exposes them to weather monitoring. The effort is to bring science and space close to children and government schools have been chosen as children here lack the exposure and facilities available in private schools. Around 37,000-40,000 students from government schools across India have been exposed to space-related activities. Of course, there’s also the social media platform for others to participate.

The $30m Google Lunar XPRIZE is a competition to challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs from round the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. To win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a privately funded team must successfully place a robot on the Moon’s surface that explores a distance of at least 500m and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth. ,

HarIndianKaMoonshot hopes to hoist the Indian national flag on the Moon before the mission deadline of March 31 2018.

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