On July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 mission, American astronaut Neil A. Armstrong made history by becoming the first human being to land on the moon. It was indeed a giant leap for mankind. After that, couple of other astronauts have stepped on the moon in a series of Apollo missions that followed. However, till date, no human from India has dared to set foot on the moon yet. But, Bengaluru-based startup TeamIndus is well on its way to send its first unmanned spacecraft to the moon. Yes, they are aiming for the moon, both literally and figuratively.
If successful, this will be historic as it will be the first Indian spacecraft sent by a private company to soft land on the moon. Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first mission to the moon launched successfully by government-owned ISRO on October 22, 2008 but it was an orbiter mission and it crash landed on the moon, not soft landed. So, far only three countries – USSR, USA, and China – have soft landed on the moon.
The spacecraft has been designed and developed in-house by the company’s young engineers with guidance from former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists. There are over 100 engineers and 20 former ISRO scientists who are helping TeamIndus design and develop its proprietary technology from its headquarters in Jakkur, Bengaluru.
TeamIndus is supported by the Google Lunar XPRIZE worth $30 million, which is a competition to challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs from around 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 at least 500 metres and transmits high-definition video and images back to earth, before the mission deadline of March 31, 2018.
TeamIndus is aiming to launch its lunar spacecraft on December 28, Rahul Narayan, fleet commander and company co-founder said. He said that if they missed the December 28 timeframe, the next window would be in the first week of January 2018 followed by the first week of February.
An international panel of expert judges from the Google Lunar XPRIZE visited their Bengaluru headquarters last week and reviewed their mission plan. The Startup Observer was invited to be part of the media interactions with the judges and the company founders. The exercise formed part of the overall review to gauge readiness of the TeamIndus moon mission as it nears launch. To everyone’s delight, professor Allen Wells, chairman of the panel said, “They are clearly on the right trajectory to make history.”
It’s noteworthy that TeamIndus is the only Indian team competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. According to Narayan, the total cost of the project is Rs 450 crore, out of which about half has already been raised and deployed. TeamIndus have already received $1 million from Google XPrize for demonstrating its landing technology in 2015. They are currently in talks with other investors to cover the remaining cost.
Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, Prize Lead for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, said, “The work done by TeamIndus is testament to how that objective is being achieved by a small team with a big heart. From being the last team to sign up for the competition back in 2010, TeamIndus have come a really long way in this journey.”
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 the earth’s orbit. From there on, the spacecraft will set course to the moon by switching on its own engines in a series of complex orbital manoeuvres. The team is targeting to land on the moon, deploy the TeamIndus rover and beam back high definition media back to earth.
The mission will be phased over 24 days in all—10 days in orbit and 14 days on the surface. The spacecraft (which is 2 m tall and 600 kg heavy) will run on 240 W of solar power and 28 V 24 A hour battery.
TeamIndus’ moon mission is also expected to open new avenues for commercial and low-cost access to the space. The success of the team is likely to encourage many other startups and large companies to focus on the space vertical which was uncommon so far.
“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,” Narayan signs off.
So, unlike the popular quote which says, “Always aim for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,” TeamIndus is not ready to settle for anything but the moon. The deadline is nearing and Narayan’s distance from the moon is getting shorter by the day!
The judges and TeamIndus have agreed to a 10-point evaluation process. Details below:
Milestone 1: Mission readiness of the spacecraft and the payload: Covers the hardware readiness and qualification status for the mission
Milestone 2: Readiness of mission operations and control
Milestone 3: Launch verification: Includes testing the ability to meet launch deadlines and qualification for launch loads
Milestone 4: Lunar arrival: This requires the spacecraft to acquire at least one stable lunar orbit
Milestone 5: Soft landing: By simulated lunar descent, they will showcase their ability to conduct the spacecraft’s landing on the lunar surface.
Milestone 6: Arrival mooncast: This includes movement of the rover from lander to the end of the test bed, taking pictures and videos and relaying back to the lander
Milestone 7: 500 metres mobility verification test: The test will confirm that the team’s 500 m mobility plan complies with the mobility reference requirements
Milestone 8: Mission complete mooncast: The test will confirm that the team’s mission complete mooncast plan complies with the mooncast reference requirements stated in milestone 7 as well.
Milestone 9: Data uplink: To establish that a specific piece of data uploaded from the team’s side is being received on the spacecraft and then sent back to earth.
Milestone 10: Protection & preservation of lunar heritage sites: To ensure that the team is taking steps to protect against inadvertent landing or disturbance of heritage sites.