STANFORD, Calif. – Bangalore-based TeamIndus inched one step closer to putting its space rover on the moon in competition for the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, as it finalized its launch contract Dec. 1 with the Indian Space Research Organization.
“It is the first time for a private enterprise that is interplanetary. We are democratizing space,” Sheelika Ravishankar, TeamIndus’ ‘Jedi Master’, told India-West on the sidelines of the Startup Bridge India conference here, jointly organized by the U.S. India Business Council and TiE.
TeamIndus is the only Indian team participating in the challenge, and one of the top three teams around the world. SpaceIl from Israel announced its launch contract in October 2015, and the U.S-based Moon Express finalized its launch contract last December.
“This is a great source of pride for India,” said Vivek Raghavan, announcing the project at the business conference. “This represents a potential whole new class of industry for India.”
Apart from winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE, the goal of TeamIndus is to build an aerospace company which is globally viable, said Raghavan. The 100-member team consists of engineers as young as 25 to retired ISRO scientists with an average age of 75.
Only three countries have soft-landed on the moon: the former USSR, the U.S., and China. India’s Chandrayaan moon mission has failed twice, first in October 2008, and then six months later.
The cost of the TeamIndus launch is $65 million, of which no more than 10 percent can come from government funding, according to contest rules. TeamIndus has raised $17 million, according to Raghavan, from more than a dozen investors including industrialist Ratan Tata, Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, and Sachin and Binny Bansal, founders of Flipkart. Raghavan stated that he would like to see every Indian contribute Rs. 500 to the project, so that the entire nation is involved in TeamIndus’ success.
Two years ago, TeamIndus received the Landing Milestone Prize of $1 million for demonstrating its landing capability and software.
To win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a privately funded team must successfully place a robot on the Moon’s surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth.
If it is successful, TeamIndus will blast off a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on Dec. 28, 2017, from Sriharikota, an island near Andhra Pradesh, which ISRO has used several satellites and rockets. The PLSV will spend 30 days in orbit before landing on the moon on Jan. 26, 2018, India’s Republic Day. The Indian flag will be placed at the landing spot. The ECA will spend 10 days on the surface of the moon.
TeamIndus’ ECA Moon Rover – ‘Ek Choti si Aasha’ in Hindi, meaning ‘One Small Wish’ – will traverse 500 meters and send high-definition video footage back to Earth. The ECA weighs just six kilograms and will move on the lunar surface at an average speed of two and a half inches per second, with a maximum speed of about four inches per second. Two state-of-the-art cameras are provided by CNES, the French national space agency.
Ravishankar told India-West that the technology for the mission is “very much on track now.” She joined the team “when it was just five people with a dream, and the potential to make it happen.”
“There is enormous impact for the next generation,” she said.
TeamIndus has received a lot of validation over the past couple of years, said Ravishankar, noting that – for the first time – ISRO has given a rocket launcher to a private agency. She also noted the tie-up with CNES.
Announcing the launch contract, Rahul Narayan, founder of TeamIndus, who is known as the organization’s fleet commander, said in a press release: “What gave us confidence to dream big when we started on this journey many years back, was the heft of the scientific legacy that India – with ISRO — created over decades. This launch contract reaffirms our mission as a truly Indian mission where the best of India’s public and private enterprises have come together to recognize a common dream.”
Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, said in a press statement: “This is a notable achievement for TeamIndus. We are proud to have one more team make it into the final stretch of this competition.”