Lift-off for India in space race

TeamIndus is one of five international contenders in the running to win a Google prize to send a robot to the Moon, from where it will transmit high-definition images.

Rahul Narayan set up TeamIndus in 2011 to compete for a US$30 million prize from Google. Subhash Sharma for The National
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BANGALORE // Rahul Narayan is a self-confessed science fiction fan, who grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars. But he never in his wildest dreams imagined that he would one day be leading a mission to send a spacecraft to the Moon.

The IT entrepreneur had been running a software development company in New Delhi before he ventured into the space technology sector, setting up TeamIndus in 2011 to compete for a US$30 million prize from Google to send and land a robot on the Moon, then have it travel 500 metres and send high-definition images back to Earth. The first team to achieve this wins the race and the prize. The ultimate aim of the mission is promote and develop relatively low cost space exploration in a quick turnaround time.

TeamIndus is one of only five international teams left in the competition for the Google Lunar XPrize, so is in with a serious chance of winning. It is targeting a launch date of December 28 from India’s space centre in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It would take a couple of weeks for the spacecraft to reach the Moon.

“This is something that I was following out of general interest and I realised that there wasn’t an Indian team in the competition, and India as an ecosystem could support building or developing or designing something so complex,” says Mr Narayan, speaking at the TeamIndus headquarters in Bangalore, which is run under the private company Axiom Research Labs.

If TeamIndus manages to successfully land on the Moon, India will become the fourth country to “soft land” – referring to a gentle landing of a spacecraft – on the Moon after the United States, Russia and China, which would be a highly significant development in India’s space industry, as it aims to take a larger share of a sector that is worth $300 billion globally.

With no background in aerospace, Mr Narayan says he “didn’t know how far this would go”.

But over the years, the vast majority of the more than 30 global teams competing for the prize have dropped out of the competition for various reasons, including difficulties raising funds. The requirements are that the rover has to be built in-house with less than 10 per cent support from government funded space agencies.

The other teams that are left are from Japan, Israel, a global team, and one from the US.

“I think we were the right kind of crazy people at the right time and the right place because India – for the last five, six, seven years – has been a great aspirational society,” says Mr Narayan. “There are lots of young people who want to do stuff. Lots of young people who have got the knowledge and the education, but don’t have the opportunities.”

The prize money will not cover the costs of TeamIndus’ lunar mission, which is expected to rise above $70m – considered low for the space industry. But the company is a commercial organisation and is already focusing on ways to develop additional revenue streams, including by expanding into satellites. Mr Narayan explains that the lunar mission is “an exercise wherein we are developing the capabilities … which can then allow us to go ahead and do similar missions in the aerospace domain better, faster, cheaper”, which is the plan for the business going forward.

Funding has been raised largely from wealthy individual investors, most of whom are based in Bangalore.

“We thought that [the project] was going to be easier than it turned out to be,” Mr Narayan says. “This is not something that will start returning revenues very quickly, so that was one of our bigger challenges.”

Space technology is an area that India has increasingly been focusing on. Much of the development of the industry has taken place at a public rather than a private level, however.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), a government body, on Wednesday sent a record 104 satellites on one rocket, breaking a record previously set by Russia of 37. This was seen as a massive leap forwards for India’s space industry. India now has its sights set on a mission to Venus and is planning another mission to Mars. Three years ago, India conducted a successful low-cost Mars mission. India’s space programme is taken seriously at a global level and it has become known for its low cost ventures.

The UAE and India over the past couple of years have been looking at opportunities to collaborate in space exploration. The UAE’s Nayif-1 nanosatellite was among the satellites launched last week from India.

India’s increased focus on space in recent years has prompted mixed reactions. Some critics question whether the country – which has extremely high levels of poverty and malnutrition among its population – should be devoting funds to the sector. India spends $1bn a year on its space programme.

But those in favour argue that the development of India’s space technology industry could lead to enormous and much-needed benefits to its economy, given that it is a sector worth hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide.

Satellites also help in activities such as weather forecasting, which can be to the economic benefit of India’s farmers, for example.

“The Indian space programme has a great potential to boost the Indian economy,” says SS Mantha, who is a space industry consultant and has worked on projects for India’s Defence Research and Development Organization.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, is keen to grow the country’s space sector and last week tweeted that the launch of the satellites was “another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation”.

The Indian president Pranab Mukherjee issued a statement saying: “This day shall go down as a landmark in the history of our space programme.This significant achievement … has demonstrated, yet again, India’s increasing space capabilities. I urge Isro to continue to strive for the progress of our space capabilities.”

Such developments are inspirational to TeamIndus.

In theTeamIndus offices in Bangalore, the team largely consists of a surprisingly young workforce of engineers in their twenties, guided by veteran scientists. TeamIndus is made up of 85 engineers and 15 former Isro scientists.

Much of the headquarters, although set in modern buildings, does not necessarily meet the futuristic expectations of the visitor of a space lab. The current prototype of the rover, for example, is currently being tested in what resembles a large sandpit that one might find in a children’s playground.

Pawprints surround the sandpit because a dog adopted by the office has been playing in the sand, developed to replicate the surface of the Moon, alongside the rover.

But there is no doubt that the team is on the right track and they have already scooped a $1m milestone Google prize for the landing capabilities of their spacecraft. And they have the support of some of the nation’s brightest space technology experts.

N Srinivasa Hegde is the mission director at TeamIndus and is a veteran of Isro, having been the mission director of India’s Chandrayaan-1 moon mission in 2008.

“There is a terrific opportunity in the commercial space industry which is available and nobody has really taken advantage of this,” says Mr Hegde. “The costs are bound to come down … with private aerospace players like TeamIndus coming in. Once you are cost-effective the market is going to open up.”

Even if the company does not win the Google prize, Mr Narayan says that it would still be “a huge accomplishment and an engineering feat to start from scratch and land something on the Moon in seven years” at a relatively low cost.

“If a few things go right, I think we could potentially win the prize,” he says. “We think there’s a very reasonable chance.”

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