Before Chandrayaan-2, India Had Another Chance at a Moon Shot
India’s first moon lander, Vikram, successfully separated from its mother spacecraft Chandrayaan-2 on Monday, 2 September, at 1:15 am. It is scheduled to land on the south polar region of the moon on 7 September, between 1:30 am and 2:30 am.
The lunar mission – ISRO’s second – will see the lander and rover module of the spacecraft make a soft landing on the moon 48 days from its date of launch, on 22 July, a week after the originally intended launch date. On 15 July, the launch of Chandrayaan-2 was aborted due to a technical snag.
Let’s rewind. Three years ago, a tiny, privately-funded outfit called TeamIndus, tried to do something similar. They were the only Indian team competing in the prestigious Google Lunar XPrize competition with other privately-funded teams from around the world to do one thing – land a craft on the Moon.
TeamIndus had captured the imagination of a small band of enthusiasts and investors, who poured passion and effort into the attempt.
Incidentally, none of the five finalists in the competition were able to complete the challenge.
Even as we wait for Chandrayaan-2’s attempt at a lunar landing, here is a look at TeamIndus, India's only privately-attempted Moon shot.
The following is excerpted from Vijay Menon’s book Innovation Stories from India Inc: Their Story in Their Words, and is based on his visit to the TeamIndus facility in Bengaluru in mid-2016, and conversations with several team members.
With ‘Star Wars’ inspired titles like Jedi Master and Skywalker, TeamIndus, in their simple facility near the Jakkur airstrip in Bangalore, was more than a technology demonstrator – it was an incredibly romantic adventure.
What TeamIndus’s Mission Was All About
TeamIndus is the only Indian team participating in the Google Lunar XPRIZE. To win, a privately-funded team must be the first to – successfully place a spacecraft on the moon's surface; travel 500 meters; and transmit high-definition video and images back to earth.
Sixteen teams from around the world are in the fray – three from the US, three international consortiums, and one each from Israel, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and India.
Edited excerpts follow:
We were late entrants to the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition. We registered the team at the end of 2010 and it was an impulsive decision. We had no plan in place, and even struggled to come up with the $50,000 needed for registration.
The team grew slowly. We are about 90 strong now – mostly young scientists and engineers guided and mentored by a group of retired space scientists from ISRO.
How Reducing Weight Of Spacecraft Helps
As of now, our spacecraft weighs less than 600 kg, including a lander of 60 kg and a rover of 10 kg. The propulsion system, needed to manoeuvre the spacecraft after the PSLV leaves us in the geostationary transfer orbit, weighs about 400 kg.
The balance is made up of subsystems like thermal implementation, power, electronics, and navigation sensors.
It’s been 45 years since anyone landed a commercial payload on the Moon, and there is huge interest from universities, research laboratories, and corporations from around the world to send their instruments with us to obtain a lunar sample or conduct an experiment on the lunar surface.
One of the ways in which we have validated our design and capability is by winning a Milestone Prize. There are milestone prizes where competing teams can put up their design for scrutiny in three categories – landing technology, imaging technology, and locomotion technology.
We won a $1 million milestone prize for demonstrating that our lander could survive the vibrations during its launch from earth on the PSLV and during impact on the Moon during the landing.
Challenges Before TeamIndus
We face many challenges. One, the landing will be completely autonomous. It will take two and a half seconds for a signal to travel up and down from the mission control in Bengaluru to the spacecraft while landing on the Moon.
That is too long for any course correction. So, the last 15 minutes of the landing sequence will need to be entirely pre-programmed and will have to execute flawlessly.
Our vehicle just weighs 10 kg and is the size of a children’s tricycle. Keeping such a light object stable and rolling on the moon presents unique challenges. Firstly, the moon has one-sixth the gravity of earth and so the rover would be that much lighter on the Moon. Secondly, the Moon’s surface is covered in fine sand that is extremely abrasive. Designing a vehicle that can travel 500 meters on such a surface involves designing special wheels to have traction on the lunar surface and accommodating power, motion control, camera, and communication subsystems.
What Was the Trickiest Part of TeamIndus’ Mission?
The TeamIndus project has been one of continuous learning and innovation. We are building one of the lightest, most efficient, and cost-effective lunar landing spacecrafts in the world.
In the process, our engineers have had to grapple with availability, performance, and interoperability of subsystems while keeping power and fuel consumption low.
While we did start off by attempting to assemble off-the-shelf components, that approach has not always worked. At this point, the flight computer, dual gimbal mechanism, power control modules, antennas, and the spacecraft structure have all been custom built in-house. In the process, we have developed significant intellectual property.
The last 15 minutes before touchdown on the lunar surface is a completely autonomous manoeuvre, and preparing for this is especially challenging. This is the trickiest part of the mission as it cannot be tested on earth before flight.
We travel in hope.
(Vijay Menon is a marcom consultant and helps organisations to tell their story better. He has previously headed marketing, communication, and investor relations at technology companies and worked as a journalist and engineer. More at www.vijaymenon.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)