An Indian aerospace startup has said that it will launch its mission to the moon in a year’s time, as it takes part in a Google-funded competition to become the world’s first-ever privately held company to make a soft landing there.
Team Indus‘s rover, nicknamed ‘Ek Choti Si Asha,’ or ‘one small hope’ in Hindi, won the Axiom Research team a million-dollar prize from Google last year.
A group of more than 100 scientists and engineers, including around a dozen former ISRO scientists, make up Axiom Research Labs’ Team Indus. The team is India’s only entry in the Google-funded Lunar XPrize challenge, which has a bounty of $30 million.
To win the prize, a team has to successfully place a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, travel at least 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth.
“A full launch vehicle from ISRO [Indian Space Research Organization] will launch our spacecraft into the orbit of the moon end of 2017,” Rahul Narayan, the fleet commander of the team, said at a news conference in New Delhi on Thursday.
The supermoon rising above Cape Town on November 14, 2016, when it was closest to the earth in 68 years.
The Team Indus spacecraft is expected to make it to the moon’s Mare Imbrium region by January 2018.
The race is on. Sixteen other teams from across the world want to make the 238,900-mile trip, and Team Indus is the fourth team to announce its launch plans, said Mr. Narayan.
“We are considering the team from Israel great competition at this point,” he said.
The Indian team’s plan is the country’s first shot at becoming the fourth nation to land gently on the lunar surface and unfurl its national flag, after the U.S., Russia and China.
The South Asian nation’s inexpensive Mars mission put its satellite Mangalyan, which now appears on India’s new 2,000-rupee bank notes, into the red planet’s orbit for $74 million in September 2014. The U.S. spent $671 million getting its Maven satellite to Mars orbit.
Team Indus’s core leadership team, including fleet commander Rahul Narayan, fourth from left.
“We’ve already raised about $15 million through private equity,” said Julius Amrit, co-founder and director. The company aims to raise $20 million by charging companies or universities to put their instruments on board to collect data. It also expects to raise another $20 million from sponsorship, donations and grants.
Its top investors include Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, one of India’s biggest conglomerates; Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Indian outsourcing firm Infosys; and the owners of e-commerce website Flipkart Internet Pvt. Ltd.
“We are quite confident at this moment that we will have enough money to send our spacecraft to the moon,” Mr. Amrit said.
The Bangalore-based startup won a million dollar prize from Google last year for its WALL-E lookalike moon rover, which will shoot high-quality images, video and data and beam them from the moon’s surface to the company’s mission center in India.
But the mission isn’t without its challenges.“If you have to softly land, you need to be able to [precisely] manage your velocity and time [to switch your engines on and off],” said Dhruv Batra, Program Lead at Team Indus. “Unfortunately, there is no throttle-like mechanism in a spacecraft, like you have in a car.”
Another challenge is to be able to land at the right time of the day—to make sure the solar panels are able to power the gadgetry, while making sure the temperature isn’t too extreme for the batteries and other electronics to work properly.
“We are currently refining each and every output of our simulations to arrive at that level of precision we need,” said Mr. Batra.Seven years ago, Team Indus was one of the last teams to sign up for the Google challenge, and its founders had no prior experience in aerospace engineering or space sciences, said Mr. Narayan, the fleet commander. “It was just a dream.”