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Rahul Narayan (left), head of TeamIndus, and the other team members pose together. Photograph courtesy TeamIndus
Rahul Narayan (left), head of TeamIndus, and the other team members pose together. Photograph courtesy TeamIndus

Aiming for the Moon

TeamIndus is the only Indian team competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE global competition to place a robot on the Moon for explorations. 


TeamIndus, a Bengaluru-based company, is vying to win the $20 million (Rs. 133 crores approximately) grand prize of the Google Lunar XPRIZE. This global competition was created in 2007 to challenge engineers and entrepreneurs to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. To win, a privately funded team must successfully place on the Moon a robot that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth.

 

Know the team

TeamIndus, which has 12 advisors, 11 partners and over 100 team members, is the only Indian team out of 29 from 17 countries. Many of the team members are engineers of around 25 years of age, working on what is likely the biggest and most important project of their lives.

Interestingly, Rahul Narayan, founder of Axiom Research Labs, a Bengaluru-based aerospace start-up, and head of TeamIndus, does not have any background in space exploration and only decided to try to construct a team from India after hearing about the contest nearly seven years ago. Consequently, “a bunch of folks with absolutely no background in aerospace got into this program to see how it plays out. It wasn’t a hollow bet, though, because we had to pay an upfront sum of $50,000 (Rs. 34 lakhs approximately) to register,” says Narayan, who is a computer science graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, and calls himself the fleet commander of TeamIndus.

Realizing he needed much more expertise on the team, Narayan contacted the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). After a number of meetings and presentations, ISRO agreed to assist the team which, Narayan says, “completely blew him away,” as they were still in the elementary phase of planning.

For the last few years, most TeamIndus members have been working on low pay, with the hopes of winning the grand prize to make it all worth the effort. Winning the prize, however, would be a daunting feat, which would take years of fundraising, preparation, construction and, eventually, final lift off into our unfathomable universe.

All the participating teams had to secure a contract for launch and finalize a launch date by the end of 2016. Unfortunately, this proved to be difficult for most of them. For the final contest, only five teams moved forward, with TeamIndus being one of them.

 

Moon mission

Explorations of the Moon and other parts of the solar system are usually approved and funded by government agencies. Peter Diamandis, the founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, which leads the world in designing and operating large-scale incentive competitions, says, “It has been many decades since we explored the Moon from the lunar surface, and it could be another six to eight years before any government returns. Even then, it will be at a large expense and, probably, with little public involvement.” By securing funds from private investors, such competitions can inspire a new generation of space exploration that is much more cost-effective and inclusive of people from different countries. TeamIndus, for instance, raised over $35 million (Rs. 233 crores) from private donors and is set to launch the robot to the Moon on December 28, 2017. It is just in time as all competing teams must complete the mission by December 31, 2017.

 

The way ahead

Right now, hopes are high for TeamIndus. “We believe, even attempting a goal of this magnitude, with belief and hard work, and the bringing together of a team of passionate minds, is in itself an achievement. Every milestone we achieve is a success. Not giving up and preserving toward our end goal is a success. We hope to redefine what was thought possible of small teams out of India. We believe our chances are very good; time will tell,” says Ramnath Babu, sometimes called the Jedi Master in charge of operations at TeamIndus.

Not only would TeamIndus like to reach the Moon before the other four participating teams and win the grand prize, but it would also compete for various bonus prizes for completing extra tasks like traveling 10 times farther than 500 meters, collecting hardware from the Apollo program or other man-made objects, detecting water, or surviving two separate lunar nights. As of now, TeamIndus is creating a space craft that will transport the lunar lander set to carry two rovers to orbit the Moon before landing on it. Last year, TeamIndus won $1 million (Rs. 670 lakhs approximately) for their landing technology, one of many milestones they have had to pass in order to compete for the Lunar XPRIZE. “We’re keeping our focus on the Moon, and working toward achieving our dream,” says Babu.

 

Megan McDrew is a professor of sociology at Hartnell College. She is based in Monterey, California.