National / Science & Health

Indian and Japanese teams in unique collaboration for lunar probe contest

by Rini Dutta

Kyodo

Among the five teams competing in the world’s first international lunar probe contest, one of them, India’s TeamIndus, is unique in its beginning and breadth of cooperation with a rival team.

The Bangalore-based startup firm is the only Indian team in the Google Lunar XPRIZE contest, in which five privately funded finalists are competing to land their spacecraft on the moon and deploy robotic rovers on its surface. They’re facing a deadline of the end of March.

TeamIndus has partnered with the Japanese team to transport the latter’s rover as well as its own to the moon using its own spacecraft, which is to be launched aboard an Indian rocket in March. It is the first collaboration between two of the contest’s private enterprise competitors.

“It’s a privilege that we have the Japanese team flying with us to the moon surface,” said Rahul Narayan, founder of TeamIndus. “Right now we are collaborating to get the technology done and get it done on time. Whichever rover is the best could win the prize.”

The contest, organized by the XPRIZE Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit organization, and sponsored by Google, is a $30 million inducement prize competition aimed at encouraging engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration.

Besides TeamIndus and the Japanese team, which is named Hakuto, Israeli, U.S. and international teams are competing to be the first in such fields as having their rovers move at least 500 meters on the lunar surface and sending high-definition images to Earth.

Even though the deadline was recently extended to the end of next March from the end of this year, the Indian and Japanese teams are still racing to meet the target date under their collaboration that stretches back a year.

TeamIndus joined the race relatively late, in 2010, three years after the contest was launched. Narayan, who was running a computer software company at the time, decided to take part as a personal undertaking.

The team began with 20 people, but today its staff has grown to over 100, including amateur engineers and highly experienced former scientists from the government’s Indian Space Research Organization.

Within a short span of time, TeamIndus managed to develop not just a rover but also a spacecraft. The latter feat was recognized by the XPRIZE contest organizer, awarding it $1 million in prize money for lunar landing technology.

“We have had all other (space) projects initiated by governments … so this would be a first attempt for a private entity to go to the moon,” said Vivek Raghvan, a TeamIndus board member and its technical chief. “We are quite proud that we are among the leaders in the competition.”

TeamIndus’ spacecraft will weigh 600 kg at launch with two rovers — the team’s ECA and Hakuto’s Sorato — as well as science experiment equipment on board.

The team’s mission involves the spacecraft first being launched into low Earth orbit. The craft is to then complete two orbits before heading toward the moon. Once in lunar orbit, the spacecraft is supposed to travel three or four times around the moon before embarking on the mission’s most complicated step: descending and landing on the surface.

Once the spacecraft is on the surface, TeamIndus’ rover is to deploy and complete the contest’s other requirements of moving around and transmitting still images and video.

If a soft landing is successfully executed, TeamIndus would be achieving something not yet accomplished even under an Indian government project.

“Until now, only three countries have done a soft landing on the moon,” Raghvan said, citing missions by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and China in 2013.

“Soft landing is a complicated technology, so that is a big challenge which our mission has to pass,” he added.

Meanwhile, the financial burden has been enormous. Narayan said the TeamIndus project has cost close to $65 million to $70 million over the last seven years, a big portion of it spent on developing the lunar lander.

The team has so far raised $35 million and needs to raise the other half by March to cover the cost. It plans to launch a crowdfunding effort in the next couple of weeks to invite people to contribute to “Every Indian’s Moon Shot,” TeamIndus’ tag line.

In October, an international panel of expert judges from the contest visited the headquarters of the team in the southern city of Bangalore for a five-day review. The tour was part of an overall review of the readiness of TeamIndus toward its mission.

Signing off on the mission, Alan Wells, the panel’s chairman, said: “We took a detailed look at the mission plan. … We have come away from this rigorous exercise impressed by the readiness of TeamIndus. They are clearly on the right trajectory to make history.”

The judges may have given their stamp of approval, but TeamIndus members are keeping their fingers crossed as they await the launch and the rest of the mission.

“It’s a very big deal for India. We haven’t landed on the moon. It will be the first time that India lands on the moon and it is also the first time in the world that a private enterprise is attempting to do something like this,” said Sheelika Ravishankar, the team’s head of marketing and outreach.

“To see the Indian flag on the moon along with the Japanese flag is a big moment. … It is a big story, an aspiration, a dream,” she said.