To the moon and back

Knapps

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08, Feb 2017

TeamIndus, one of the five finalists for Google Lunar XPrize, has planned a road trip to inspire Indian children to take up science. Moonshot Wheels will take 16 science experiments to touch some 36,000 students in government schools in 11 states. By next Republic Day, January 26, 2018, Indus aims to land their first spacecraft on the moon, travel at least 500m on the Moon’s surface and send back images and videos.

What has TeamIndus launched?

TeamIndus Foundation, which seeks to take TeamIndus' inspirational message to every Indian, has announced the launch of Moonshot Wheels.

  • Moonshot Wheels is a bus which will traverse 11 states, 12,500 kms in 12 months, across India impacting 36000+ students in government schools.
  • The bus will carry 16 science experiments, live satellite tracking, Moon rover, Spacecraft scaled model and an experience zone.
  • Each child will get an opportunity to experience and understand the making of a Space Mission and its underlying technologies and will interact with rocket scientists as well as the rest of the team behind India’s first private Moon Mission.
  • Moonshot Wheels will carry a Moonshot Capsule which will be filled with the aspirations of the children the bus meets on its journey. These aspirations will then fly aboard the TeamIndus Spacecraft as a metaphor of how their lives can take flight.

This program is curated and administered by TeamIndus Foundation with on ground implementation by Agastya International Foundation, which has been dedicated to bring STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) alive for children.

Why has the journey of TeamIndus been remarkable?

TeamIndus, a Bengaluru startup, is among the five finalists for the Google Lunar X Prize to send a lander to the Moon. The team is led by Rahul Narayan, a Delhi-based IT professional.

  • It’s not that Rahul Narayan, founder of Axiom Research Labs and head of TeamIndus, dreamt of exploring space all his life.
  • Narayan began by launching his own software and services products firm. It was during one of the “videoconferencing calls with an American customer who was working with another Google XPrize team” that Narayan got his eureka moment — the idea to set up a team from India to take up this challenge.

The competition and tagline “Moon 2.0” of the Google XPrize caught Narayan’s attention. The last day of the competition was 31 December 2010, and there wasn’t a single Indian team. Google asked Narayan if he and his colleagues were interested, and if they could quickly put together a team.

  • Consequently, “a bunch of folks with absolutely no background in aerospace got into this programme to see how it plays out. It wasn’t a hollow bet, though, because we had to pay an upfront sum of $50,000 to register”, recalls Narayan, who is a computer science graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, and calls himself the Fleet Commander of TeamIndus.

The past five years haven’t been easy for Narayan. The first year went by on trying to figure out where to start. “There were questions like—what’s the budget; who is going to help you build this; what do you build; and how do you build it Do you build something small and efficient Or do you build something large and very bombastic,” he recounts.

  • Narayan and his team started digging in their heels to figure out how to go about the task that was “very intimidating”.
  • He realized he would need help from an experienced person in the aerospace industry. The name that came to mind was Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan — an Indian space scientist who headed ISRO from 1994 to 2003. He was also a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission.
  • Kasturirangan assured Narayan and his team that he would help them with technology inputs “as and when time permitted”. He also introduced TeamIndus members to ISRO.

With advisors from ISRO and youngsters from various backgrounds joining this exciting journey, TeamIndus is set on an unexplored, yet remarkable path.

When was the Lunar XPRIZE contest launched?

The Google Lunar XPRIZE, sometimes referred to as Moon 2.0, is an inducement prize space competition launched on 13 Sept, 2007 by XPRIZE, and sponsored by Google.

  • The challenge calls for privately funded spaceflight teams to be the first to land a privately funded robotic spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high-definition video and images.
  • It has pledged as much as $40 million to the winners, including milestone prizes for demonstrating that the contenders’ technologies work for landing, mobility, imaging and so on on the Moon’s surface, in tests that simulate similar conditions on earth.

Since the contest was announced in 2007, interest in the Google Lunar XPrize has been high, with 32 teams originally signing up.

  • Thereafter finally 16 teams actively participated in all activities, however as per rule that teams must get a verified launch contract by 31st December 2016, this feat was only achieved by 5 teams.
  • Five teams remain in the running: Israel’s SpaceIL, Florida-based Moon Express, an international team known as Synergy Moon, India’s Team Indus and Japan’s Hakuto.
  • The first prize is $20 million, the second place is worth $5 million and bonus money is available for accomplishing extra tasks, such as visiting an Apollo landing site or finding water on the moon.

Purpose

  • Peter Diamandis, the project founder, wrote on the official web page: "It has been many decades since we explored the Moon from the lunar surface, and it could be another 6–8 years before any government returns. Even then, it will be at a large expense, and probably with little public involvement."
  • The goal of the Google Lunar X Prize: to inspire a new generation of private investment in hopes of developing more cost-effective technologies and materials to overcome many limitations of space exploration that are currently taken for granted.

The Moon is a treasure chest of rare metals and other beneficial materials that can be used here on Earth. A successful Google Lunar XPRIZE would result in cost-effective and reliable access to the Moon, allowing for the development of new methods of discovering and using space resources, and in the long-term, helping to expand human civilization into space.

Note: An inducement prize contest (IPC) is a competition that awards a cash prize for the accomplishment of a feat, usually of engineering. IPCs are typically designed to extend the limits of human ability.

Where does TeamIndus stand currently?

TeamIndus was selected as the fourth finalist among the five selected for the Lunar X Prize in January 2017, after clinching a contract with ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) to place its rover on the Moon.

  • The mission, whose launch is planned for December 28 this year on ISRO' s PSLV rocket, will undertake a journey of 3.84 lakh kilometres from Earth to make a soft-landing on the moon on January 26, 2018.
  • TeamIndus has won $1 million in milestone money under the landing category in the Lunar X Prize.

Funding challenges

  • TeamIndus has to raise and spend (in instalments) about $65 million by the end of next year. Most of the money is being spent largely on building the spacecraft since the components are very expensive. The company’s big marketing campaign will be launched in the next couple of months.
  • As a part of their crowdfunding initiative, the startup announced that it will offer Indians the opportunity to leave their names on the moon, for a price.
  • For Rs 500, Team Indus will take the names of their public donors and immortalize them on the moon, by micro-engraving them on a small-sized aluminium object, which will then be placed on the lunar surface when their lander descends on the moon.

Technical hurdles

  • Landing the spacecraft on the moon is not easy — there are many technology hurdles, scheduling hurdles, funds crunch, and lack of facilities.
  • Only three countries have accomplished it so far. Even ISRO has not landed a spacecraft on the moon till date (ISRO has sent satellites to the moon and mars but never soft-landed).
  • To land on the moon softly, the touchdown velocity has to come down to almost zero — from 1.64 km/sec. The challenge is that the fuel is limited. Each and every drop has to be spent judiciously. Adding more tanks will increase the weight of the spacecraft, which is not advisable because it consumes more fuel as the mass of the spacecraft increases.
  • Moreover, the system has many complex algorithms, and the number of paths on which this software has to be tested, makes the testing requirement enormous.

Who are TeamIndus?

The TeamIndus is a team of professionals from various backgrounds science, technology, finance and media that is the only Indian team leading the charge of India to win the Lunar X Prize mission.

  • TeamIndus has around 100 employees. These are “the square pegs that would not fit into the round holes”, says Rahul Narayan. TeamIndus also hired a lot of engineers who interned with them.
  • Sheelika Ravishankar, the people lead at TeamIndus, concurs: “We have folks who have paid up their bonds in their respective companies and settled for lower-paying jobs with us.”
  • She admits, though, that sustaining this trend is more challenging. To address the issue, TeamIndus has inducted 12 retired ISRO scientists who have the “hands-on experience that none of our engineers have”.

About 80 of the company’s employees are around 25 years of age on average; the 12 retired Isro scientists are between 65 and 70 years of age. The retired Isro scientists are called “sages” while the youngsters are called “warriors”. Because TeamIndus is a start-up, even freshers who are called Ninjas get to see the moon mission in its totality.

  • P.S. Nair, TeamIndus Jedi Commander (Structures), retired from ISRO at the age of 66. A PhD in aeronautics from the Indian Institute of Science, Nair joined TeamIndus because “it is an investment in the industry which you can use for interplanetary and satellite missions. It will help this company build expertise in space, which till now is confined to agencies like Isro. The advantage is youngsters who are amenable to trying out new things. It is a very unique opportunity for the country to get the private sector involved in high-tech”.
  • P. Natarajan, TeamIndus Jedi Commander (Flight Dynamics Systems), who retired from ISRO last year, agrees. He heads the navigation guidance and control group—basically the response for altitude control after the ejection of the spacecraft into the orbit.

Partners

  • In 2014, TeamIndus signed up a set of partners like Larsen and Toubro Ltd, Tata Communications Ltd and Sasken Communication Technologies Ltd “who went out of their way to provide us with services, infrastructure, introduction with people and other things”, says Narayan.
  • It was at this juncture that TeamIndus also did a seeded investment, led by including Infosys Ltd co-founder and Aadhaar architect Nandan Nilekani, and chairman, managing director and CEO of Sasken Communication Technologies, Rajiv Mody, and about 60 other entrepreneurs.

How can India get its Next Gen interested in space research?

The present trend among young people after Class XII is to take up engineering, medicine or management courses because of an assurance of employment. To attract the best minds to space research at the MSc and doctoral programs, it is essential that an exclusive science cadre is introduced to facilitate a career in well-known scientific laboratories and universities

The Department of Space (DOS) has taken the following measures for encouraging young minds towards space science research:

  • ISRO Space Science Promotion Scheme (ISRO-SSPS) is an initiative intended towards supporting and strengthening of research in space science in universities. The scheme, initiated during 2008-09 period, includes - M.Sc / M.Tech fellowships to meritorious students, one time grant for laboratory augmentation and support for visiting scientists / guest faculties.
  • ISRO’s Sponsored Research (RESPOND) Program is intended for encouraging academia, Junior Research Fellows, young researchers to participate & contribute in various space program related research activities in Indian universities and institutes.
  • DOS has established Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), Deemed University at Thiruvananthapuram, to provide specialised education in the areas of space technology. The institute is the first of its kind in the country to offer high quality education at the undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and post-doctoral levels in the areas related to space science & technology and its applications.
  • DOS regularly organises workshops, exhibitions and outreach programmes to create excitement amongst students in space science and technology.

Above all, academic institutions must have well-equipped laboratories and professors who have the proven capacity to attract youth to the field. Indian universities lack a research culture.

  • Our universities need to transform into research-cum-teaching hubs. This calls for the presence of a number of renowned space researchers on campus to attract bright students.
  • Such a research environment will provide credibility to university departments and, in turn, bring in funding by industry and R&D laboratories for space research programs and projects.
  • Involvement of private sector in space research would also attract youth towards it. Businesses need to invest in ways to expand the ecosystem of research and development beyond well-known organisations such as ISRO.

Further, educating young children about space science and planetary missions, viz. Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission, ASTROSAT, undertaken by ISRO renew the interest of young minds towards space science.

  • The initiative of Moonshot Wheels is an innovative way to inspire the young minds. Combining immersive learning experiences and interactions with scientists and engineers, Moonshot Wheels can create a lasting impact and inspire the next generation of Creators, Innovators and Change makers.

If TeamIndus wins this ‘new space race’, India will see a surge in just the kind of start-ups it needs: the ones which aim for the stars and the moon.

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Tags | Google Lunar XPrize Moonshot TeamIndus