In 2011, a bunch of astronomy enthusiasts came together to follow a common dream of sending a satellite to the moon. None of them had any professional aerospace experience, yet today, the Bengaluru-based company is the only Indian team in the race for the international $30 million Google Lunar XPrize. It is now one step closer to its mission by signing a verified commercial launch contract with the Indian Space Research Organisation's commercial arm, Antrix Corporation.
This makes TeamIndus the first Indian company to contract an entire launch vehicle for a space mission from ISRO. The deal comes two years after TeamIndus first approached Antrix for the launch in 2014, with the government organisation doing its due investigation to ensure that the spacecraft met its specifications. The startup has paid Antrix the full commercial fees for the launch, though the team was not willing to reveal how much.
ISRO regularly launches foreign and private satellites as payloads on its PSLV. According to reports, between 2013 and 2015, the ISRO earned $101 million in commercial launch fees. Usually one ISRO vehicle carries several payloads (satellites) from various companies. TeamIndus will be contracting one full vehicle. However, like ISRO itself does, TeamIndus will be selling payloads in the vehicle contracted by them to raise more money.
To win, a privately-funded team has to build a rover, successfully soft land it on the moon by December 2017, explore its surface for at least 500 metres, and send high-definition videos and photographs back to earth. The prize's larger aim is to encourage low-cost methods of robotic space exploration, with the first team to do this will win $ 20 million. The remaining $ 10 million will be divided between the teams that get the second and third spot.
"What gave us confidence to dream big when we started on this journey was the heft of the scientific legacy that India, led by ISRO, has created over decades."
TeamIndus is one of the 16 shortlisted teams for the prize, out of the initial 30. "What gave us confidence to dream big when we started on this journey was the heft of the scientific legacy that India, led by ISRO, has created over decades," co-founder Rahul Narayan said. "The launch contract reaffirms our mission as a truly Indian mission where the best of India's public and private enterprises have come together to realise a common dream."
If TeamIndus succeeds, India would be only the fourth country to successful manage a soft landing on the lunar surface, after USSR, USA and China. For co-founder Rahul Naryan, an IT engineer by training, reaching for the moon isn't a big deal. "I'm a just a space buff and just a software guy who thinks that a problem can be solved by rolling up his sleeves," Narayan said. "That weekend was almost six years ago, but I'm still trying to solve the same problem." TeamIndus came together when were the last team to register for the prize on the last day of submissions, but they are now hoping to the first.
In the initial years, TeamIndus modelled themselves on American millionaire Elon Musk's aerospace company SpaceX, but it was ISRO's support which helped it grow. "SpaceX was wildly successful so that's what we hoped to be," Narayan said. "ISRO had the enabling shoulders of the giant we hoped to stand on."
It is a partnership that has been growing ever since Narayanan and his team first came up with the idea of the moon mission. From sourcing components from ISRO's suppliers to drawing upon the expertise of retired ISRO scientists, the government's space agency has played a vital role in nurturing the young company. "This is very complex engineering and we couldn't have done it without complete ecosystem of suppliers, designers and other experts," Narayan said. "Although the company started in Delhi, we moved to Bengaluru because that ecosystem existed in the city thanks to ISRO being there for the last four decades." In the future, they even hope to collaborate with ISRO to develop engineering solutions.
"SpaceX was wildly successful so that's what we hoped to be and ISRO had the enabling shoulders of the giant we hoped to stand on."
Over the last five odd years, the founders have put together a team of 100 employees. The company is a balance of the young and the old, with veteran ISRO scientists as well as young graduates who have worked on building satellites in college. The spacecraft and the rover have both been indigenously built and designed by 100 engineers, including 20 retired ISRO scientists.
"There are no jugaads in space. There no corners to be cut," Narayan said. "Everything needs to be done the right way. We have a credible, committed team and that gives us the edge."
These preparations will culminate at the end of 2017, when ISRO's PSLV rocket will launch the 600-kg TeamIndus spacecraft from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. It will be first injected into earth's orbit, and then perform a series of manoeuvres to enter moon's orbit.
The launch is expected to take on 28 December, 2017, with the mission can take anywhere between 14 and 28 days, with the trickiest part being the landing. "When we begin the descent to the lunar surface, the spacecraft will be completely autonomous," Narayan said. "If we are at 90% for the launch, but for the touchdown, we are still only at 75%. The next few months will focus on that."
"If we land and if we are the first, it will be a fairy tale outcome. But whether we win the prize or not, it sets the stage for things to us to continue doing other things."
The company's audacious dream has been backed by investors such as Ratan Tata, Nandan Nilekani, and Flipkart's Sachin and Binny Bansal, among others. In all, the team has raised about 15 million dollars (Rs 100 crore) so far, out of its estimated project cost of 60 million dollars (Rs 450 crore). They are hoping to raise more money through an extensive public campaign called 'Har Indian Ka Moonshot' and by selling payloads on their spacecraft.
TeamIndus is already looking beyond the Google Lunar XPrize, and its future as a full-fledged space company. In the long run, they hope to design engineering solutions, which compliment ISRO's work. "If we build the spacecraft and put it on the launch vehicle, we have accomplished 90% of our goal," Narayan said. "If we land and if we are the first, it will be a fairy tale outcome. But whether we win the prize or not, it sets the stage for things to us to continue doing other things."