Young grads aim to land a robot on the moon

To win the $30 mn Lunar XPrize, their robot has to land on the Moon, explore at least 500m and transmit video, images

August 28, 2016 10:29 pm | Updated July 10, 2017 09:16 pm IST

The all-terrain, four-wheel electric rover, which can fit in travel baggage, has been tested to drive on the dustiest lunar surface. A ‘lander’ will help the rover make a soft landing that is critical to the success of the project.

The all-terrain, four-wheel electric rover, which can fit in travel baggage, has been tested to drive on the dustiest lunar surface. A ‘lander’ will help the rover make a soft landing that is critical to the success of the project.

When young college graduates John K. John and Karan Vaish decided to look out for work, they did not choose conventional jobs like working in an IT services company. Instead, the graduates, who are in their early twenties, decided to pursue their passion and use their skills for an audacious project of building a privately-funded spacecraft capable of soft landing on the moon by December 2017.

The duo is now part of Team Indus run by Bengaluru-based aerospace start-up Axiom Research Labs. It is the only Indian team competing for the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP).

To win the prize, Team Indus has to place on the moon’s surface a robot that explores at least 500 metres and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth.

Breaking stereotypes

“Eighty per cent of our team is less than five years out of college,” said Rahul Narayan, Team Indus fleet commander in an interview. The young team is helping build the lunar lander and a rover. These would be carried by Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) launch system that would blast into space on a 15-day voyage to the moon. By the time the spacecraft reaches the lunar surface it would have covered about 238,900 miles.

“I was just a college student couple of years ago and now I am working on an actual space mission, how cool is that,” said Karan Vaish, 23, who is helping Team Indus to design the lunar rover, code-named ECA, which can fit in travel luggage. The all terrain, four-wheel electric rover has been tested to drive on the dustiest lunar surface.

Its wheels are made of aluminium instead of rubber. It is capable of climbing slopes and over obstacles as its wheels, which look like that of a battle tank, have grousers and meshed surfaces. The lightweight rover has two big eyes or cameras that would stream pictures and videos down to the Earth. Mr.Vaish, an alumnus of SRM University and whose official designation is ‘Skywalker’, said that such space missions used to be limited to ‘extremely’ elite people and PhDs. “That stereotype is breaking,” he said.

Unlike Chandrayaan-1, India's first mission to the moon, where its probe had a hard landing on the moon surface that terminated its functioning, a soft landing is key. The lunar lander with the rover inside is critical to this objective. John K. John, 23, who had joined Team Indus as an intern, is helping the start-up design this four-legged lander, code-named HHK. The lander has to be durable as it would be clocking speeds close to 10 kilometres per second before it slows down, prepping up for the descent.

“Sometimes we have to do the same thing a hundred times to get it right,” said Mr. John, an alumnus of Karunya University.

There are over 85 engineers and 15 former ISRO scientists helping Team Indus design and develop its proprietary technology at its headquarters in Jakkur, near Bengaluru. Among former ISRO scientists mentoring the young team is 61-year-old Mohini Parameswaran, Team Indus Jedi Commander. She is helping with the mission-planning and operations. “I feel twenty years younger,” said Ms. Parameswaran who has also worked with the European Space Agency.

Team Indus is one of the 16 remaining from the 29 that had entered the GLXP competition. It plans to use ISRO’s workhorse -- the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) to send the spacecraft to the moon. But Team Indus needs to secure a verified launch contract by this December to remain in the GLXP competition and complete the mission by the end of 2017. Two of its rivals – Israeli non-profit organisation SpaceIL and US-based start-up Moon Express, have already secured verified launch contracts for 2017. “I love them (Team Indus). I love the fact that they are from my mother country, are trying to think anew,” said Naveen Jain, billionaire entrepreneur and co-founder of Moon Express in an interview. He, however, cautioned that Team Indus had only four months left to buy the rocket launch contract and that the biggest hurdle for them is the development of the lander. This month, Moon Express became the first private company to get permission from the U.S. government to travel beyond Earth’s orbit and land on the moon in 2017. The company, co-founded by Mr. Jain in 2010 with space entrepreneur Bob Richards and computer scientist Barney Pell, is also aiming to mine the moon for rare metals and elements. Some of these include platinum, titanium, gold, and the non-radioactive Helium-3, regarded as having the potential to power nuclear fusion reactors. Team Indus is backed by angel investors including India’s top tech entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, as also support from corporates such as Tata Communications, Sasken and Larsen & Toubro. But Mr. Narayan said the firm requires to raise funding of about $65 million.

Mr. Jain of Moon Express said raising money in ‘space’ is difficult as it is not a proven business and most venture capitalists don't understand it. He said angel investors may put in some money but that doesn't add up to millions of dollars. “Space is an extremely hard business. It requires a tremendous amount of effort and finances,” said Mr. Jain. He said that Moon Express has signed a multi-launch deal with aerospace company Rocket Lab to use its launch services for the moon mission. “For us, winning the prize is an icing on the cake,” he said.

Innovative approach

The other competitor SpaceIL is taking an innovative approach – its spacecraft is about the size of a dishwasher. In order to conserve mass, SpaceIL developed the idea of a 'space hop'. In this, the spacecraft lands on the lunar surface and then takes off again with the fuel left in its propulsion system. Then it will perform another landing, 500 meters away, according to the prize criteria.

But Mr. Narayan is not deterred by his more resourceful competitors. He doesn't think that a race or competition is won by one with the deepest pockets or that all the smart people work for the richest. He compared his mission to the 1983 Cricket World Cup – won by the underdog Indian team, defeating a formidable West Indies team in the finals. “It (Indian team) was just a team of ordinary people who said we will make this happen. They tried really hard and got lucky,” said Mr. Narayan. “I think we have a very good (chance).”

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