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To the moon and back: Bengaluru start-up could be game changer in space missions

tech Updated: Jan 09, 2017 07:31 IST
Deepika S
Space missions

ECA, the rover developed by Team Indus, which will travel over the moon’s surface(Grist Media)

Walking through the office of Team Indus in Bengaluru demands a jaunty soundtrack in the background. It’s hard to shake off the feeling of being in a summer blockbuster, a kind of Jobs-meets-Interstellar. Team Indus is a private start-up in the aerospace sector where cabins for meetings in its whitewashed office in the city’s outskirts are given names such as ‘Aspire’, ‘Believe’ and ‘Create’, and company executives have designations like ‘Fleet Commander’ and ‘Jedi Master’. One group of engineers works in a large cabin with glass walls covered in scribbles and notes and diagrams.

Team Indus’ small army of rather young engineers, guided by a dozen retired scientists who formerly worked for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), are racing against time to do what no one in India has ever done before, and only three countries have ever accomplished so far: the soft landing of a spacecraft on the moon. A soft landing is a controlled descent as opposed to crashing into the surface, which other countries including India have done in the past.

Perhaps it should be David Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’ that plays on loop. India has seen moon missions before: in 2008, ISRO sent a lunar orbiter and a probe designed to crash into the moon’s surface as part of the Chandrayaan-1 mission.

The landing machinery for which Team Indus won the GLXP Milestone prize in 2015. (Grist Media )

Team Indus came into being in 2011 after Rahul Narayan, one of its co-founders, learned about the Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP). To win the $20 million top prize, a team has to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, have a craft travel 500 metres along the surface and transmit high-definition video and images back to earth.

“The idea (for creating Team Indus) originated from there,” says Ramnath Babu, Jedi Master at the company. Babu had been in touch with Narayan and the two, along with an extended group of friends, had been talking about doing something ‘different’. “We thought if there was an Indian team, deep-pocketed, strong, we would like to support them in some way.” As the registration deadline for the competition grew closer, they realised there was no such team they could throw their weight behind. “That’s when we got together again. Each of us – in different geographic locations – we got on a phone call, and said, ‘Let’s do it’.” In 2013, Team Indus moved operations from Noida to Bangalore, start-up haven and home to the aerospace ecosystem that had come up around ISRO.

Dhruv Batra, fellow Jedi Master who came on board full time in 2013 to handle project delivery, says he knew he wanted to be part of the team after a 5-minute phone conversation in 2011 with Narayan, who he had worked with before, that began, “Radical idea, karna hai kya?” He says the idea of having the tricolour on the surface of the moon got them excited. “It was all about patriotism. Remains about patriotism.”

Babu sounds fed up when he says he is often asked why Indians like him should invest time, effort and resources in space when the country faces so many other problems. He feels that it is a question that no one would ask of an American company, and believes that technology makes large scale improvements possible. He believes their mission’s success will put a stop to questions like those.

What makes the prospect of a private company landing a spacecraft on the moon so radical? For one, no private company has ever created a spacecraft that has travelled beyond earth’s orbit so far. As Naveen Jain, one of the co-founders of Moon Express, an American team in the running for the GLXP, said in an interview, “If we succeed, not only will we become the first private company to land on the moon but the fourth superpower. If a small group of entrepreneurs can do something that only had been done by superpowers, that’s a huge shift in what’s possible.”

PS Nair, who joined ISRO in its early years soon after completing his PhD in the early 70s and worked on projects such as Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, says he feels it would be a waste if all the knowledge and expertise at ISRO remains confined to ISRO. Team Indus’ mission, he says, is “a real step forward for the private industry towards technology building in satellite and aerospace technology, and that will be a big step forward for India. And that is why some of us are really excited and interested in helping and being part of this process.”

Mohini Parameswaran, a former scientist at ISRO and the European Space Agency (ESA), points out that the specific technical knowledge required for such a mission requires practical experience. Parameswaran, who now works at Team Indus on the ground software to command the spacecraft and monitor its health, comes with that valuable experience, having worked with missions like the Rohini series and Rosetta.

With a launch date set for December 28, 2017, Team Indus only has a year in which to develop and test all their technology to ensure their goal for now is met: for their lightweight rover named ECA, which looks rather like a sleek Wall-E (and just as adorable), to fulfil the conditions of the GLXP and plant the Indian flag on the moon’s soil on January 26, 2018 — Republic Day. At the moment, a prototype of the ECA (pronounced eeka), which weighs under 10 kg, sits at their facility for testing in what looks like a large sandbox, which is made up of 16 tonnes of quarry dust, meant to mimic the moon’s fine soil, across which the rover will have to travel. The moon has no atmosphere, and is considered to be surrounded by vacuum. The ECA will also have to withstand the moon’s harsh surface temperatures, which can range from 100°C during the day to -150°C or less at night.

Team Indus’ page on the GLXP website says that its mission is “a celebration of all things great about India – the audacious goal, the young bright engineers, the can-do entrepreneurial spirit, partners who commit their resources, and the new breed of world-class entrepreneurs who have supported (us).” Hyped as it may sound, by early 2015 Team Indus had received their first public affirmation that they were on the right track: they won a GLXP Milestone Prize worth $1 million for demonstrating their landing technology. It was created by a team of around 35 engineers, all under the age of 26 at the time, with the guidance of a few experts.

As for the money, they received funding from high-profile investors such as Nandan Nilekani, former Infosys CEO and former chair of the Unique Identification Authority of India, who in early 2015 came in as an angel investor and advisor. Other investors included HCL founder Ajai Chowdhry, and Sasken Communication founder Rajiv Mody. Put together, Team Indus received about $1.5 million.

Amidst ongoing funding efforts, in November 2016, Narayan told BusinessLine that stock investors Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Ashish Kacholia and RK Damani had picked up stakes in Team Indus, though Nilekani remains their single biggest investor. Industrialist Ratan Tata, and Flipkart founders Sachin and Binny Bansal are also among their top investors. Team Indus pegs the cost of the entire project at $65 million, over thrice the amount of the GLXP prize money itself.

To win the final prize, teams have to prove that 90% of their costs were privately funded, and had to bag a verified launch contract by the end of 2016. The latter was taken care of just in time, with Team Indus announcing a commercial launch contract with ISRO in early December 2016, making it one of only five teams left in the running to have satisfied that criterion. Team Indus’ spacecraft will be launched on ISRO’s trusty polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV). Apart from Team Indus and Moon Express, the Israeli team SpaceIL and the international team Synergy Moon have bagged verified launch contracts to remain in the GLXP.

Team Indus’ latest exciting announcement is a collaboration with HAKUTO, their Japanese competitors in the GLXP who won $500,000 for the robotic rover they developed and the fifth team to make it through this round. The 4 kg Japanese rover will hitch a ride on Team Indus’ 600 kg spacecraft, which can carry up to 20 kg. Apart from the two rovers, Team Indus will also be carrying student experiments and international university payloads under what they call their ‘Lab2Moon’ initiative. One of these will be a 4 kg payload created by a group of Kolkata scientists, which has an X-ray detector and four computers that for the first time ever will study outer space from the surface of the moon.

The Japanese collaboration is in line with what Team Indus plans for its future beyond the GLXP mission: commercial projects that could involve satellite projects; if they nail the descent on their current spacecraft, then commercial payloads are a possibility; also possible would be expeditions to exploit natural resources on the moon such as water and Helium-3 (a non-radioactive isotope of helium that is rare on earth and sought after for its use in nuclear fusion research, cryogenics and for other purposes). In this, their goals are somewhat similar to that of Moon Express, formed by a group of Silicon Valley and space entrepreneurs, which also plans to take payloads to the moon and has its eye on the moon’s natural resources. (However, on the possibility of mining natural resources, Batra points out, they’d rather facilitate such operations than be involved directly. “What the scientific community wants to do on the surface of the moon, we would rather leave to the experts,” he says.) In contrast, SpaceIL is a non-profit that aims to promote science and scientific education with the prize money, and the sees the space industry as having the potential to be “a major growth engine for the Israeli economy”. Synergy Moon’s stated aim beyond the competition is to develop space exploration and adventuring technologies and services “all intended to bring space closer to humanity.”

For now, Dhananjay, a young marketing executive at the company, a former electrical engineer who joined Team Indus after hearing about it from friends, says that the hardest part of the mission is “obviously” the descent algorithm: only China, the erstwhile USSR and the USA have ever managed a soft landing on the moon. With no precedent to go on, not even from ISRO, it’s something Team Indus will have to build from scratch. Once Team Indus’ spacecraft is injected by the PSLV into an orbit 800 km above the surface of the earth, it will have set course to the moon “by switching on its own engines in a series of complex orbital manoeuvres,” says a release from Team Indus. Managing the landing in the vacuum that surrounds the moon is tough, as the engines available to Team Indus are not “throttleable,” says Batra, and its descent onto the moon’s surface cannot be controlled in real time from earth. “The last 900 seconds have to be completely autonomous. Because of the latency between the earth and the moon, the entire decision matrix has to be onboard the spacecraft.” Using a closed loop design, engines will have to control the spacecraft’s thrust, and sensors will have to detect position and velocity and pass this information on to the engines in turn so the craft lands vertically, with its solar panels harnessing energy from the sun.

Nair, who is working on the design and development of Team Indus’ moonlander and rover, believes that now they are past the design stage in some cases, the most critical part will be the hardware realisation and testing, which is just beginning and will have to be done in “war mode”. “Any major slippage can cause difficulty,” he says. The coming 12 months will be the toughest and most critical, he believes, technically far more difficult than anything they have done so far. On the other hand, Batra says carefully that he would rather not focus on any specific aspect of the mission as being the most difficult, as the smallest error at any stage could lead to failure. However, everyone from Batra to Nair appears confident that they will not fail. “There is a good chance of the mission’s success. But there is no room for slackness,” Nair says.

A view of staff inside the Team Indus office in Jakkur, Bangalore. (Grist Media)

One aspect of the company Team Indus loves to highlight is its young team, with an average age of 28, building their own tech, some of it entirely from scratch. “When I joined ISRO after my PhD in ‘72-73 and we were working on Aryabhata, we didn’t have anyone whom we could go to with our questions,” says Nair, who is now 71. When he began his career at ISRO, the organisation was only a few years old, having been established in 1969. “The starting point for the youngsters at Team Indus now is a lot better. They get a lot more handholding and mentoring than we did,” he says. Parameswaran says she was initially asked to come in twice a week. “After a month,” she says, “all these young people liked my approach and they said, ‘No, no, we want you to come every day.’” She says she enjoys being able to guide the young engineers at the company. “I feel 20 years younger,” says the 61-year-old. As a start-up, the work atmosphere at Team Indus appears casual, and with all the Star Wars references thrown around in the company (apart from the Jedi Masters, there are Skywalkers, Troopers and Padawans), it seems only logical that the release of a new Star Wars movie is considered a good enough reason here for a day off. The same applies to Star Trek films (they do not discriminate, says Dhananjay), and to films about space like The Martian or Gravity.

Behind the light-hearted exterior, Jedi Masters Batra and Babu speak of the initial challenges of being taken seriously as private players in the aerospace arena. Batra says it’s a measure of how far they’ve come in five years that he was recently asked by a vendor if it would be alright to send out a press release announcing their association with Team Indus. Batra and Babu also talk about having left their families behind to relocate to Bangalore with Team Indus (Batra’s family only recently moved to join him), their 24/7 campus and the sheer amount of work that has gone into Team Indus. If the entire endeavour already seems to have an aura of movie-like coolness, Batra and Babu make clear the nuts-and-bolts of the mission holding it together. Although Team Indus’ website makes lofty statements about the possibility of the moon becoming the “first outpost of an interplanetary species of humans,” Batra tells me that, for now, they would “rather position themselves as a logistics company” capable of carrying various payloads to the surface of the moon. “Beyond the [GLXP] mission, the effort that has gone into this will help us build credentials to become proven manufacturers of satellites and as a company capable of doing interplanetary missions,” says Babu.

And then Batra circles back to talking about patriotism. Theirs is, after all, a company that has an inspirational quote in Hindi from Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their entrance (“Yehi naujawan is desh ki taakat hai”: These young people are the strength of this nation) and, reportedly, blessings from Modi himself. The sentimentalism, however, doesn’t seem entirely incongruous with their scientific mission. Perhaps it’s the very movie-like quality of it all that makes it fit right in with stories like Interstellar, whose makers took pains to try and get the scientific details in their movie right, only to throw in a fifth dimension amidst the wormholes and black holes and interplanetary journeys: love.

In Batra’s cabin hangs a drawing of Yoda, done by his daughter. Babu’s cabin has his daughter’s 10th standard board exam schedule. There’s one burning question I have to ask them before I leave their office: have they seen the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One?

Both men shake their heads and laugh. Their work schedules simply don’t allow it.

(In arrangement with GRIST Media)