Google Lunar X prize: India's Moonshot at the Space Race

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War Mongerer
Apr 29, 2015
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Google Lunar X prize: India's Moonshot at the Space Race
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Indus Lunar Lander Spacecraft - Space exploration has become a subject of international pride and politics in India

Indian startup Team Indus is one of just 16 remaining teams racing to the moon for a $20m prize $20m prize for Landing a Rover on the Moon

Sometime in late 2017, a tiny vehicle
will blast into space from India on a
10-day journey to the moon.
As it finally lands on the lunar surface some 238,900 miles later, its fate will rest entirely on four small aluminium parts in its shock absorbers. They need to work in a vacuum, with lubrication that doesn’t freeze or jam no matter what the angle. And if they fail, there’s no one to go up and fix it – meaning that eight years of work and $20m (£13.2m) in prize money will be lost in space.
These parts need precision engineering, making them costly and slow to build. But Team Indus, the only Indian team competing in the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), has always found itself short on time and resources.
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“We’re lunatics,” said co-founder Dilip Chabria, of the mission Team Indus has set itself. The Bangalore-based private space startup formed and officially entered the GLXP competition on 31 December 2010 – three years after it was first announced and just as the cut-
off period for new entrants expired.
“We spoke to GLXP and realised that there was no Indian team, which was
surprising when you look at the Indian knowledge base in space,” said Chabria, pointing to a small but healthy Indian private space community and a government space programme that continues to impress. “We were told that the closing date had passed. The GLXP guys were on their Christmas break, and came back to help us register.”
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The team doesn’t seem that bothered by its late start, though. On its website, just underneath its Bangalore address, it also lists its selenographic (moon) address, just near where the US government landed its own probe in 1966. “This office address will be functional after 2015,” it says. “Please inform our terrestrial office before you
visit us.” It could probably use a little
$20m prize for landing a rover on the moon Team Indus is run by a private
company called Axiom Research Labs, founded in 2011 and funded by the founders, some independent
entrepreneurs and some wealthy
individuals. Indus is diverse: Chabria
created what he said was India’s largest ball-bearing manufacturer, while mission architect Sameer Joshi was a pilot in the Indian Air Force, flying military missions before pursuing his dreams in space.
Together with IT entrepreneur and tech leader Rahul Narayan and former investment banker Julius Amrit, Team Indus has grown to include 80 people. It is one of 16 teams remaining from the 29 that originally entered the GLXP. It isn’t surprising that some dropped out,
given the challenge ahead. To win the $20m prize, teams must be the first to land an autonomous rover on the moon, travel 500 metres then transmit highbdefinition video and images back to earth. The second team to accomplish that wins $5m.
The magnitude of the challenge is partly why GLXP has pushed the deadline for the competition so far back, explains the contest’s senior director Chanda Gonzales.
In 2010, as teams reeled from the
financial crisis, it pushed back the final competition deadline from 2014 to 2015.
Last December, it pushed back by
another year to December 2016, and
then in May, it rescheduled again until 31 December 2017, contingent on at least one team securing a launch contract by this December. Everyone else has to announce a contract within a year of that date.
There were also intermediate prizes in 2013, which GLXP dreamed up after being concerned about how the teams were doing in the face of a deafening silence, Gonzales said.
“We knew there were technical
challenges but it was all hearsay. You’d ask the teams: ‘What do you mean by ‘we’re not there yet?’’,” Gonzales recalled. “The teams didn’t want to give us all the information, because they didn’t want to be seen as so far back that we’d lose faith in them.”
‘There’s a lot of patriotism about our
There’s another reason why the deadline for the landing gear was so
important to Team Indus. It needed the parts early, to participate in one of these milestone prizes. If it could demonstrate its landing capabilities on earth, it could scoop $1m.
The problem was, it couldn’t find any
global providers to handle the precision engineering job to the tight timescale.
“When looking for expertise on
fabricating the landing gear for the
spacecraft, there were very few
recommendations,” said Narayal.
Then, someone suggested a firm in
Mumbai, Precihole, which mostly makes large gun nozzles. “They expedited delivery and refused to charge market rates,” said Narayan. “We paid only a couple of thousand dollars for six landing gear sets (four legs in each set).”
Thanks to goodwill from a local
company, Team Indus walked away
with the prize money and some kudos back home. National pride is a big driver, says Chabria: “We’re developing everything out of India, and we have a lot of patriotism around us on the mission.”
India’s public space agency, ISRO,
launched its first rocket from a small
fishing hamlet, cobbled together with
entirely foreign parts. Since then, it has also been playing catchup, with some impressive successes.
Last December, it launched an astronaut-ready capsule into space, and is planning its own alternative to the US global positioning satellite (GPS) which it plans to make fully operational with a constellation of seven satellites next year.
The Indian programme’s efforts have
also scored it at least one impressive first: in September 2014, it became the only country in history to orbit a satellite around Mars on the first attempt.
ISRO’s success is also good for India’s burgeoning private space sector, explains Roger Moser, assistant professor in international management at the Swiss University of St Gellen, and director of the Asia Connect Center and India Competence Centre. Moser studies
the development of India’s space
“ISRO is already looking to fully
operationalise PSLV development via private industry,” he said, referring to the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle that it uses for launches. “It is expected that private industry shall also get into satellite manufacturing, possibly via small satellites.”
GLXP hopes that its prize will help that market along. London Economics, an analyst firm commissioned by GLXP, identified several areas where private space teams competing in the contest could exploit the opportunities, including providing expertise for lunar and asteroid mining, harvesting scientific and technical data from space and providing subsystems for other space missions.
All Team Indus energy is focused on a moon landing
The firm estimates future market
opportunities at $197m over 25 years, but opportunities in already emerging and existing space markets bump that figure to $6.3bn, it said.
The public sector will buy a lot of that technology at first (52% of the market over the next 10 years), but private sector customers will outstrip public sector buyers of space-based IP in the longer term, it said. Two thirds of the commercial opportunities in space tech will come from private sector firms by 2040, London Economics said.
Team Indus is working on its own intellectual property outside of the
lunar mission, says Chabria, adding that the company hasn’t yet decided how to market it. All its energy today is spent on getting to the moon. It’ll launch using ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), originally designed to put satellites into orbit. The launch will push the rocket to its highest possible point, and the lunar lander will then progress through nine different orbital paths to reach the lunar surface.
After travelling for 40 million km at up to 10.4km a second, and slowing down from a 3000m/sec orbit, it will finally, hopefully, land on the moon.
More on this topic Jeff Bezos 1-0 Elon Musk: Blue Origin New Shepard lands successfully Once there it will have to send information to ground staff, enabling them to track its movements. Indian multinational Tata Group partnered with Team Indus to handle the infrastructure for ground operations, said Tata spokesperson Julie Woods-Moss.
Tata will send the deep space signal
from the craft and send it to the Team Indus Bangalore centre using its low-latency fibre network. The firm will also use its analytics engine to report operational data to the team, said Woods-Moss. Naturally, there’s also a marketing opportunity, given that this is the first time a private craft has landed on the moon, and it wants to send real time images from the craft to web users.
“We learned a lot about this from what we do with Formula One,” she said. “You can truly be close to real time when you’re using these low-latency networks.” Before that, though, Team Indus needs a PSLV launch contract.
“The earliest that you can fly after
entering a launch contract is 18
months,” said Narayan. “We will need a little more than that. We expect to sign before the end of this year, hopefully. The clock’s still ticking.

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