Axiom Research Labs, India's first private aerospace company, has a large office within a spacious campus in Bengaluru's Jakkuru Layout neighbourhood.
Inside these premises, Team Indus, a team of hundred plus people, supported and backed by Axiom, is working to build a moon rover and a spacecraft that will place the rover on the moon. Team Indus is one of the five finalists in the prestigious Google Lunar Xprize competition. As the team's website puts it: "To win, a privately funded team must successfully place a robot on the Moon that explores at least 500 metres and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth."
The competition was announced in 2007. The first team to succeed in the mission will be awarded $20 million, and the second team to succeed will win $5 million. Another $5 million is available in the form of bonus prizes.
Thirty-two teams registered for the contest after it was announced, out of which 16 participated actively in the race. Team Indus was one of the five teams selected by a Xprize panel in February 2014 which could compete for the prizes based on their proposals. In January 2015, Team Indus was awarded a $1 million Milestone Prize.
According to the competition rules, to stay in the fray, the teams had to get a certified launch contract by 31 December 2016 and, once again, Team Indus was among the five teams that were able to get the contract. The startup has tied up with the Indian space agency ISRO for launching the spacecraft on the PSLV rocket.
Team Indus was founded in 2011 by a group of space enthusiasts. Besides the $1 million that it won in prize money, the team has also raised over $15 million from private investors, including big names such as Nandan Nilekani, Ratan Tata and Flipkart's Binny Bansal. Contest rules specify that the mission has to be 90 percent privately funded.
As the part of the competition, the team has to deliver a payload that weighs at least 20 kg to the moon with a modular spacecraft that can host other experiments for future missions. Additionally, the team's rover has to spend at least a day on the lunar surface. The rover should have a 360-degree camera module which should be able to send images and videos to the earth. For the cameras, Team Indus has partnered with the French space agency, CNES.
Team Indus aims to win the first prize by launching its lunar mission on 28 December 2017. The goal is to land the lunar probe on the moon on 26 January 2018, as a landmark date.
Besides its own payload, Team Indus is also taking other payloads to the lunar surface. While 6.5 kg is reserved for its own rover, it will host another team from the Xprize competition and even some school projects. The Japanese team Hakuto, which won $500,000 from Google for its rover design, has signed a deal with the Indian startup.
Team Indus had announced a competition of its own, called Lab2Moon, calling students under the age of 25 from all over the world to design experiments that could be carried out on the lunar surface and would help mankind inhabit other planets in the long run. The startup recently announced that a total of seven experiments would be hosted on the spacecraft, including three from India. The other experiments have been designed by young students from Italy, Peru, Britain and the US.
Rahul Narayan, an IT professional originally based out of Delhi, is at the helm of Team Indus. He roped in experienced ex-ISRO scientists on board to give a boost to the young team.
"It feels good when you're one of the five finalists. The competition started with almost 30 entrants and now we are representing India in the finals," Narayan said, talking to HuffPost India.
The Team Indus rover looks rather adorable, resembling Wall-E, and has gone through many iterations. Code-named ECA (Ek chhoti si Asha), the first version of the rover was built in 2013 and five iterations later it is finally design ready. There will be minor modifications before the actual flight.
The biggest challenge facing the team is to make the rover move on the surface of the moon. The lunar surface is made of ash like material, so the rover has been designed to press the surface underneath and then move ahead. The final version of ECA will weigh around 6-7 kg and will be powered by solar panels.
"We have used Sandwich Honeycomb modular design for the spacecraft so it is very light," Dr. P. S. Nair, who was also a part of ISRO's first ever mission, told HuffPost. "It is very important for the soft landing. Once our design is in the final stage, we would be testing the whole set up at ISRO's facility."
To control the rover, Team Indus has set up a control centre that can accommodate 10 people in its Bengaluru office.
After the scheduled launch on 28 December, the PSLV rocket will provide the passage to the spacecraft out of the earth's atmosphere. The craft will then use its own thrusters to reach the moon's orbit. It will eventually land on the lunar surface on 26 January 2018 after spending 28 days in lunar orbit.
The reason behind the extended orbiting period is to wait for sunrise at the landing site, called Mare Imbrium. The rover, being solar powered, would need sunlight to operate. The spacecraft itself will be powered by a propellant tank and a fuel tank with batteries attached.
For simulating lunar surface and gravity, Team Indus has set up a sandy floor and a helium balloon has been tied to ECA prototype.
Despite many challenges, the team is upbeat about the outcome. "This is the first time such a complex moon mission has been taken up by a bunch of enthusiastic young people in the private space," Dr. Nair said. "This is a big step in the Indian and the global context as well. It is rare that a startup in space industry rises from the ground as it is a protected big industry space."
Besides the Google Lunar Xprize competition, Team Indus is also concentrating on other experiments such as making modular nano satellites.
"It's not about just one program anymore," Narayan explained. "We come with a unique set of capabilities. We have a mix of the experience and the energy to carve out a niche in the Indian space program."