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By: Ravina Rawal
TEAM INDUS IS AN AEROSPACE RESEARCH TEAM & THE ONLY INDIAN TEAM IN THE GOOGLE LUNAR XPRIZE (AKA MOON 2.0). THE COMPETITION PITS 29 TEAMS AGAINST EACH OTHER, WITH THE DIRECTIVE OF CREATING AND LANDING A ROBOT ON THE MOON. WITH A COOL $20 MILLION UP FOR GRABS, TEAM INDUS HAS ALREADY BEEN AWARDED $1 MILLION FOR SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETING A LANDING TEST. RAVINA RAWAL GETS THE DETAILS.
A RACE TO THE MOON! HOW EXCITING. WHAT ON EARTH POSSESSED YOU GUYS TO… YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE ANY ACTUAL EXPERIENCE IN THIS, RIGHT? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? TELL US EVERYTHING.
Well, we have all known each other for some time now, and we’ve grown to be friends. We only found out about this competition — the Google Lunar XPrize — because it was someone’s desktop wallpaper. When we looked into it, we were surprised to see that no Indian team had registered for this. We are a part of a resurgent India, we have some of the world’s most intelligent minds, and are blessed with the Indian Space Research Organisation right in our backyard… it just didn’t make sense. We immediately wanted to represent the country, and the sheer impossibility of the task was motivation enough. Between the four of us, we all do have some solid technical backgrounds — matched with ISRO’s ecosystem, we were convinced we’d be able to meet the target.
So on New Year’s Eve in 2010, we — Rahul Narayan, Sameer Joshi, Dilip Chabria, and Julius Amrit — put our names down on the very last day of registration, and Team Indus was born in earnest. Google confirmed our nomination soon after, and it was game on. Not only were we going to be part of something massive, we were going to be contributing in some way to a better world for the next generation.
To help the teams along, we were all encouraged to participate in this international conference where the idea was to keep them posted on our progress, exchange ideas and so on. But when you’re competing teams, you don’t really want to share everything in front of everyone, right, so no one would really divulge proper information and it all started to get a bit vague. So they then instead created a private jury of sorts who would judge and keep track the progress of the participating teams.
Now besides the $30 million up for grabs (of which $20 million is for the winner, and $5 million each for the runners-up), there are also a number of smaller Milestone Prizes to be won along the way, as also thereafter. The big prize is won by the first team to land their robots on the moon, move 500m, and send HD images and data back to earth. The bonus Milestone prizes give you the opportunity to score $1 million each for additional accomplishments — being able to survive a whole lunar night, for instance, or passing the endurance test of moving five km, or discovering other useful things on the moon like water or ice.
We are one of three teams to already have been awarded $1 million for successfully completing a Terrestrial Landing Milestone Prize.
CONGRATULATIONS! SO ARE YOU FOCUSSING ON THE BIG PRIZE, OR WILL YOU BE HAPPY WITH EVEN JUST BEING ABLE TO SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETE THE RACE?
The big prize is $20 million, but if you look at how much money is actually going into this, let us tell you that this is peanuts. So it’s not so much about the cash prize but the idea is definitely to be the first private company in the world to land on the moon — let’s be honest, no one enters a competition to come in second.
THERE’S A CLEAR DEARTH OF EXPERIENCE IN INDIA WHEN IT COMES TO CARRYING OUT SUCH A PROJECT. AMAZING AS IT IS IN ALL SORTS OF OTHER WAYS, NOT EVEN ISRO HAS MANAGED TO MAKE A SOFT LANDING ON THE MOON YET. DOES THIS LACK OF EXPERIENCE WITHIN THE COUNTRY POSE A BIGGER CHALLENGE FOR YOU? IS ISRO DEEPLY INVOLVED IN THIS MISSION?
Is ISRO involved? It’s the Bhishma Pitahma of this project! ISRO is the custodian of space exploration in India. It’s because of their support that organisations like ours are allowed to flourish and prosper. Without their help and services, we will not even be able to take off.
As for the rest of it, the enormity of the task is linked to milestones as part of the evolution. Our small steps in this direction will be a giant leap for Indian aerospace and scientific efforts in the coming years. We are basically opening up a new vertical in the private-public partnership, to help spawn a space economy in India. We aim to add value to ISRO’s efforts in the years to come through a meaningful partnership with them.
YOUR OFFICIAL WEBSITE MENTIONS TWO BRANCH ADDRESSES FOR TEAM INDUS’ OFFICES — THE ‘TERRESTRIAL’ ONE IN BANGALORE; AND THE OTHER A ‘SELENOGRAPHIC OFFICE ADDRESS’, IN ‘LUNAR ZONE: SINUS MEDII’. SAY SOMETHING I UNDERSTAND?
After 2017, our second office will be on the moon [Laughs]. Since we are going to the moon, we must have offices on both sides, right?
The idea is to be the first private company in the world to land on the moon — let’s be honest, no one enters a competition to come in second.
YES, I CANNOT EVEN BEGIN TO IMAGINE THE EVERYDAY COMMUTE IF YOU DIDN’T.
We just want to revisit history, that’s the significance. And in doing so, we’ll be creating another lunar base point, which will further add to the significance of Sinus Medii, where the 1966 moon landing — NASA’s Surveyor 2 Mission — was carried out.
This one particular location on the moon has a lot of data available; it’s a well-mapped region, and we’re familiar with all the craters, the environment, and the landscaping. Since our mission isn’t just to land on the moon but also to move around, we’ve selected this region with the aim of accomplishing all primary and secondary objectives; the landing becomes easy and manoeuvring to about 500m also becomes possible.
TELL US MORE ABOUT THE LOGISTICS OF THE MISSION ITSELF?
In a nutshell, the mission will have a launch phase with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a separation phase (from ISRO’s PSLV rocket), the Coast Phase, which is the journey to the moon; the Lunar orbit capture phase, which entails getting into the Lunar orbit, and, finally, the landing phase. After touchdown, the Lunar Lander will deploy the Lunar Rover to cover the required task: to travel 500m and beam back the HD images as proof of landing. Landing… that’s going to be the most difficult phase of all.
Now, Earth and the moon are roughly four lakh km apart. You have an initial launch through a PSLV-XL (XL for Extra Load), which will inject us into initial orbit or the parking orbit (450 km). A couple of rounds around Earth lead us to the coasting phase, where we fire the engines of the spacecraft to go toward the moon. What we are doing here is coasting in the parking orbit to make it larger in size, to get us closer to the lunar orbit. We start coming out of the earth’s gravitational field, and the moon’s gravitational field comes into play. When you get sucked in by the moon’s gravitational field, you fire the engines again to reduce the orbits, to come closer to the surface, identify the landing spot, and direct the spacecraft towards it for landing.
When we start, we will be holding around 600 kg of load, and by the time we land, that amount will reduce to roughly 210 kg. The fuel constitutes a bulk of the weight. We will burn about 400 kg of fuel to get to the moon. Besides the weight of the spacecraft, there is also extra ‘pay load’ which we can carry, to be deployed on the moon. So, a rover about 20 kg in weight can be carried along. That’s the kind of weight we think we’ll be able to carry with every spacecraft that goes there.
Then there is ‘mid-course correction’. When you are heading toward the moon, you can’t actually see it. By the time you get there, it may very well have moved forward. So the idea is to aim ahead of the moon. Mid-course correction will happen when we’re about 1 lakh km away from the earth — there’s no GPS system in space, and it’s not like you can stop the car to ask for directions. A 3D map will be able to sense the direction of the spacecraft, and on the basis of that assessment, we evaluate if we need to make any mid-course correction. This is when you go off-course; on-course, there’s nothing to worry about.
Our fastest speed when we are headed to the moon will be around 10 km/sec, and it will be roughly 1.7 – 2 km/second when we land. To give you a fair idea, that’s roughly 14 times the speed of a bullet… maybe even faster.
We only found out about this competition because it was someone’s desk- top wallpaper.
NOW, I IMAGINE THIS WHOLE PROJECT REQUIRES SOME SERIOUS FINANCIAL SUPPORT — HOW IS TEAM INDUS MANAGING OPERATIONS?
Like any traditional start-up, we have a series of HNI investments and angel investors funding us currently. We are also looking at leveraging the event by letting Indian companies interested in being a part of this come on board and launch with this mission — because anyone who’s a part of the event will be recognised globally after the launch. So there are a lot of people talking about how they can get involved — from sponsorships to crowdfunding — and we’ve planned a series of inclusive-exclusive campaigns around this. We’re looking at an inclusive campaign where we use crowdfunding to not only involve people here, but from across the globe. Whenever that happens, it’ll most likely set an international benchmark as far as the process of crowdfunding goes.
OF ALL THE PARTICIPATING TEAMS, WHO’S YOUR MAIN COMPETITION SO FAR?
We’ve got an eye on two American teams — Moon Express and Astrobotic. Israel’s SpaceIL also, it’s turning out to be the dark horse of the competition.
IF TEAM INDUS CAN MAKE THIS MISSION A SUCCESS AND WIN THE $20 MILLION GOOGLE LUNAR XPRIZE, WHERE DOES THE ORGANISATION INTEND TO GO FROM THERE? IS THERE MORE SPACE TRAVEL LINED UP FOR THE FUTURE? MANNED CRAFTS, PERHAPS?
During our lunar journey, we’ve gained acute experience in many verticals of aerospace technology. The future of the company lies in space exploration systems, satellites and stratospheric assets… let’s see.
THERE’S A LOT OF TALK OF NONSPECIALISED SPACE TRAVEL THESE DAYS. YOU HAVE ONE INTERNATIONAL FIRM PROMISING TO SEND VOLUNTEERS PERMANENTLY TO MARS. DO YOU SEE SPACE TOURISM BECOMING A REALITY ANYTIME IN THE NEXT 50 YEARS? DO WE HAVE THE CAPABILITY OR THE TECHNOLOGY FOR THAT?
Space tourism will start in the next couple of years and, like all frontiers of exploration by mankind, will fuel travel from our planet to other planets. There’s a distinct possibility of Earth-to-moon travel in 20 years, and Earth-to Mars in 50 years, for the purpose of tourism. Let’s put it this way: Ever since we discovered fire, humans have wanted to reach that ‘next level’. Except that when we get there, we want to go even further. It’s a constant journey: as soon as we reach somewhere, we start to look beyond it. Today, as a species, we see a huge universe outside, and it’s lovely, intriguing, and exciting. But we obviously don’t know what it holds. ‘Hey, let’s go and figure out what’s happening’ — that’s the first step to understanding that there’s this vast universe and we’re just a very small component of it.