India’s First Private Moon Rover Will Launch One Week Before $30m Deadline

TeamIndus was founded in 2010 to become the first private entity from India to put a rover on the moon by 2017. How is it faring?

The rover that TeamIndus is building and will hope to operate on the moon's surface around December 2017. Credit: TeamIndus

The rover that TeamIndus is building and will hope to operate on the moon’s surface around December 2017. Credit: TeamIndus

Bengaluru: To win the international Google Lunar XPrize, a private team must build a rover, launch it to the moon, ensure it travels for at least 500 metres on the lunar surface and sends back hi-def images and videos – all by December 2017. And the only team from India and still in the race is cutting it real close. TeamIndus, based out of Bengaluru, India, hopes to make it in the last week of the last month of the contest onboard a PSLV rocket. The detail was finalised earlier this month, historic because it is ISRO’s first sale of its launch vehicle to a private entity.

“I think we’re just about two-thirds of the way through,” says Rahul Narayan, founder of TeamIndus. “We’ve got two dozen suppliers, most of them international. All of their material needs to come in at the same time, with the right testing and qualifications.” But even so, he’s very optimistic of TeamIndus’s chances. “First to the launchpad? Highly likely. First to launch? Very, very likely. First to land on the moon? I think so.”

TeamIndus was founded in 2010 to crack the XPrize. Today, it counts over 80 engineers and a dozen scientists among its employees. And it plans to add more once a new round of funding brings $10-15 million into their kitty. Their office is located in north Bengaluru, in a simple white building off a busy highway, obscured by tall tress and vines draping its walls.

The chassis of an early model of TeamIndus’s rover has been parked just beyond the gate. It looks like a big old park bench with space for about four people to sit on; I don’t notice it until Narayan points it out. “That’s actually version two of our spacecraft, from 2013 – that’s how it used to look, that was the size of the spacecraft. The solar panels were flat and it had three engines at the bottom.”

Keeping it simple

The building’s blocks are named Aryabhatta, Bhaskara and C.V. Raman – the names of three of India’s most celebrated scientists. The first two have also had ISRO satellites named after them, but you’d be off if you thought there was a deeper meaning. Narayan likes to keep things simple. “ABC,” he clarifies, just like TeamIndus’s tagline: ‘Aspire. Believe. Create.’ The company’s employees have almost a spartan focus on the basics. Narayan doesn’t want to be “that sexy” or deploy something fancy. Instead, him and his colleagues are trying to build something that just works.

They looked at some of the first American rovers conceived for Mars, which weighed about 20-25 kg and were designed to last for a few months on the red planet. With this choice, the problem they’d be solving for became easier to define: how do you land something that weighs about 25 kg on Mars? And then they worked backwards from there to figure out the whole mission.

The way things stand: in the last week of December 2017, a PSLV rocket will carry a spacecraft – whose launch mass will be around 600 kg – to an orbit about 70,000 km high. There, the spacecraft will orbit Earth twice, each time climbing in altitude by 10,000 km. Then, it will attempt a manoeuvre called a translunar injection and set itself en route to the moon.

Rahul Narayan

Rahul Narayan

Once there, it will orbit the natural satellite for about two weeks before the spacecraft will deploy the rover, which will be moving through space at about 1.7 km/s at an altitude of around 12 km. Over the next 15 minutes, the rover will fire its sixteen attitude control thrusters and one primary thruster to descend on the lunar surface, moving down in a curved path. Once it touches down, it will send a signal back to Earth saying it’s reached safe. Then, the last phase of the mission will begin.

According to Narayan, the landing will be the most challenging part of their efforts because it will be completely autonomous. “Before we say, ‘Okay, you’re good to go’, we’ve to look at parameters starting from the state of charge of the battery, the orientation of the spacecraft, the condition of your knowledge about the spacecraft in terms of whether it’s in line with what you’ve predicted, etc., and only then you send the command to begin descent.” And once that happens, TeamIndus will only be receiving telemetry. Narayan compares the event to what happened when NASA landed Curiosity on Mars in 2012. Its descent phase was defined by seven minutes of silence from the rover, since called the ‘seven minutes of terror‘.

“Almost everybody comes and says, ‘We think you can do the engineering, let’s talk about the other stuff.’ But the engineering is the most complex job,” he laughs. “Every part of the mission has a ‘sphere’ within which it can operate”, a reference to the range of values each part can take on. He extends his thumb and index fingers: “The spacecraft can be here or here” – he points near either finger from within the gap – “but if it’s outside the sphere, then the mission will fail because we can’t predict what will happen next.” Before launch, the mission operations team charts out the entire spectrum of possibilities and within which Narayan says a million scenarios exist. And this is why it’s so important to define the mission’s conditions for success: depending on the desired outcome, the team has to decide beforehand what happens next in each scenario.

Different kinds of failure

In a similar vein, because various segments of the project present different levels of difficulty, TeamIndus also has a graded definition of failure. Narayan thinks that if, in hindsight, they discover that they didn’t get some things right on the drawing board, that’d be the worst for having spent so much time, energy and resources on as well as for what it would mean for the company’s reputation. But “if we build the entire spacecraft, qualify it, put it onto the launchpad” – all of which he thinks won’t really be a challenge – then it will be a success for their engineering team. Finally, if something goes wrong in-flight or after touchdown, Narayan isn’t too worried: “We’re doing it for the first time.”

At this point, he compares TeamIndus’s efforts to full-blown state-sponsored space agencies around the world that spend hundreds of millions of dollars and still can’t be absolutely certain of their chances of success. This is only fair because space isn’t easy. When it successfully began the Mars Orbiter Mission in September 2014, ISRO became the first national space agency to get that far on its first try. But at the same time, Narayan doesn’t think highly of the jugaad that many have attributed to this, especially considering recent reports that it was pulled off on a puny budget of Rs 447.39 crore.

Jugaad‘ is Hindi for a make-do attitude that typifies a uniquely Indian brand of entrepreneurialism. Its presence is taken for granted (and so doesn’t elicit surprise) in undertakings that are pulled off against tough odds such as a lack of money or manpower, usually by substituting an ideal resource with one that is readily available or accessible. Of late, this attitude has cropped up when discussing satellites built by Indian universities as well. ISRO has many memoranda of understanding with institutions to ready and launch student-built satellites. However, these satellites often fail soon after they enter orbit and linger there as orbital debris.

A diagram of the spacecraft that will fly onboard the PSLV rocket and carry the rover. Credit: TeamIndus

A diagram of the spacecraft that will fly onboard the PSLV rocket and carry the rover. Credit: TeamIndus

“How do a group of 20 students and three professors get together, work on a satellite for three years and spend Rs 20 lakh on the hardware?” Narayan begins cautiously. “If you just looked at the value of their time, it’s an order of magnitude more than that. It’s bound to cost Rs 2 or 3 crore, so at some point you need to stop doing jugaad and start focusing on what you need to do. Instead of spending Rs 2 lakh or 20 lakh, if they spent about a crore and actually built something that worked, it would make a whole lot more sense – rather than take so many shortcuts” and then simply not succeed.

A graded definition of failure also has implications for the cash reward the XPrize carries for the first team that achieves all its objectives: $30 million. Though the stipulated deadline is December 2017 and it looks like TeamIndus’s at least two-week-long mission will begin only in the last week of that month, Narayan thinks there’s some ambiguity in the language there that will see them through. Plus there are only three other teams that have had their launch contracts verified by the contest’s organisers (Narayan is sure theirs will be too, by the January 1, 2017, deadline) – down from the 29 that had initially applied. But even if TeamIndus is the first to get on the launchpad, the reward’s quantum indicates that wouldn’t entirely be the point anymore.

According to Narayan, the mission has cost TeamIndus Rs 400 crore – almost $59 million. So winning the XPrize a year down the line would be a glorious stepping stone: landing on the moon would do a world of good for the “trajectory of the team, of the company, of the country, so to speak”. But it’d be a stepping stone nonetheless, towards the company’s moving on to bigger things. Specifically, Narayan says they want to build as well as provide services for 150-kg-class satellites, a class that has been becoming increasingly popular for its fast turnarounds. “That’s one of the natural segues for us as a team” – a team he feels has been easier to bring together given what they’re trying to do but in an ecosystem that’s mostly devoid of talent.

Controlling the narrative

Yet another source of revenue closer to now is to sell what data TeamIndus’s spacecraft and rover collect to ISRO. He’s not clear about the exact timeframe but there’s a general awareness that the next big Indian rover mission after TeamIndus’s will be ISRO’s own Chandrayaan 2, also slated for the moon. However, Narayan clarifies that there has been no formal discussion on that. “Right now, we’re trying to get the contract and the cross-verification of the mission strategy out of the way. We’re already in touch with some of the other centres of ISRO that build payloads and might be interested.”

Apart from the launch vehicle, the contract gives TeamIndus access to some other mission-critical infrastructure. One is testing and getting the spacecraft ready for launch. The second: ground communications. During the launch and descent phases, the spacecraft/rover will communicate with engineers on Earth through ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC), headquartered in Bengaluru. And via ISTRAC, TeamIndus will also have access to NASA’s Deep Space Network, a network of antennae that can ‘listen’ to satellites billions of kilometres away.

But even with this help, one deficiency shouts through. “We do not have a proper planetary sciences group,” says Narayan, which makes it harder to decide what line of research to pursue depending on which part of the moon their rover is going to explore (the current choice is a region called the Sea of Showers). India’s own planetary missions only kicked off with the Chandrayaan 1 in 2008 – while NASA and the European Space Agency have had such groups for many decades now. He hopes the XPrize mission will move things along.

Then again, leading up to this interview, TeamIndus’s staying away from the media until very recently has seemed like a deficiency, too. Narayan justifies it by saying he owes it to his team to “tightly control the narrative” and keep it focused on what they’re trying to do – instead of spending time clarifying that they’re not competing with Mars One, the European organisation that has promised to ferry some people on a one-way trip to Mars next decade. Such reports actually appeared in 2011, followed by some others that said TeamIndus had actually won the XPrize.

We’ve been very circumspect, but going forward, we know that a lot of people are going to be a part of this. We’re putting together what could be a very public outreach campaign that gets more and more people involved,” Narayan explains. This campaign includes Lab2Moon, an invitation to innovators around the world to pitch a science experiment on the theme of ‘sustainable life on the moon’. TeamIndus, however, doesn’t expect anything groundbreaking: the spacecraft will only have room for something the size of a small water bottle. The first shortlist of 20 entries, choosing from over 3,000, is expected to be announced by next week. And once an experiment does go up, TeamIndus has promised what data it gathers will be all put in the public domain.

Julius Amrit, Narayan’s colleague, thinks it will be India’s Apollo moment – and why not? When John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of the US Congress in May 1961, appealing them to fund efforts that would culminate in Apollo 11, he may well have been speaking of efforts underway right now: “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will find us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world – but as shown by the feat of astronaut [Alan] Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others.