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#SpaceWatchGL Interviews: Initiating a New Space Age with TeamIndus

The Team Indus team. Photograph courtesy of Team Indus.
The TeamIndus team. Photograph courtesy of TeamIndus.

The U.S.$30M Google Lunar XPRIZE is an unprecedented competition to challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. To win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a privately funded team must successfully place a robot on the Moon’s surface that explores at least 500 metres and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth, before the mission deadline of 31 December 2017.

Julius Amrit - Credits:
Julius Amrit, Co-Founder of TeamIndus – Credits:

In this interview series, SpaceWatch Middle East is taking a closer look at the Lunar XPRIZE competitors. In this exclusive interview, we speak to Julius Amrit, Co-Founder of TeamIndus, the only Indian team in the competition. The team is building a privately funded spacecraft capable of soft landing on the Moon by 2017.

You are participating in the Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP), and you are ranked as one of the potential winners of the competition. Can you give us a brief overview about your entire mission? Are you going for a one time mission or a sustainable commercial repeatable mission?

TeamIndus came about in response to the GLXP in 2010, a global competition which required privately funded teams to build and land a spacecraft on the Moon.  It’s a huge moonshot and we’ve had our share of challenges. Our first validation came when the competition organizers instituted the Terrestrial Milestone Prize in 2014. We were one of the few teams who qualified for the prize. GLXP had an independent jury of 9 scientists from across the world – from space agencies like NASA, ESA, JAXA etc. who came and validated out technology and risk mitigation strategy and awarded us $1M towards the Landing Prize.

This was a major turning point in our journey as this proved to everyone around us that we could not only conceptualize but also execute this mission successfully from 1st principles. The way we are building this mission is very lean and focused primarily on achieving the goals of the competition. The processes and technology we come up with can be applied to future missions as well and hopefully make travel to the Moon as economical as possible.

We are targeting a launch late in 2017, aboard the PSLV, the workhorse launch vehicle of the Indian Space Research Organization. The PSLV would leave us in a lower earth orbit, and from there our spacecraft will continue its journey from Earth to Moon. This journey would take about 20 days. The toughest part of the journey is the soft landing on the lunar surface. Our spacecraft needs to do this part of the journey completely autonomously and needs to have limited hazard avoidance and precision landing capability.

What effect do you think the explosion of the Falcon 9 on 1 September 2016 will have on your project’s chances, as well as on the industry as a whole?

Space is about the absolute cutting edge of engineering. What happened on the Falcon 9 was unfortunate, but we are sure that this won’t be anything more than a mere bump in the road for SpaceX and the industry. Specifically, to our project, it has no impact, as we are not a SpaceX customer.

According to open-source information you will use PSLV, if we are not mistaken. What is the status of your launcher?

We are in the final stages of negotiations with the commercial arm of ISRO. You should hear from us very soon!

TeamIndus spacecraft - Credits: TeamIndus
TeamIndus spacecraft – Credits: TeamIndus

Can you tell me more about your spacecraft and how it operates?

The four-legged spacecraft will be designed and built in India, with a supplier network from around the world.  Our main focus has been efficiency both in terms of cost and performance. We have designed and built a number of components in-house instead of buying them off the shelf and that has helped us innovate while keeping costs low. Systems such as the on-board computer, communication and power management systems have all been built in the campus. Our team of scientists and engineers are writing landing and flight software in house as well. The spacecraft will carry our rover, a few experiments including the winning experiment of our Lab2Moon youth challenge and will also carry commercial payload.

Do you have a confirmed launch date and can you disclose the launch window?

The launch will take place in December 2017.

Reaching the moon is one element, the other one will be landing. Where is your landing site? Any specific plans? What will you do there?

Our choice will be Mare Imbrium, also called the Sea of Showers. We would like to think of it as a possible Moon-port in the future for humanity, considering the relatively flat topography. Two missions have already landed in and around the area and that means we do have information that will help us as we design our spacecraft and the rover. Once we land, the rover would be deployed and we will be beaming high definition media back to earth

The Team Indus ECA moon rover. Photograph courtesy of Team Indus.
The Team Indus ECA moon rover. Photograph courtesy of Team Indus.

What is the commercial and scientific impact of your mission? What are your expectations in terms of reputation and national pride? Education?

One of the experiments that we will be carrying to the Moon would be the winner of our Lab2Moon challenge, where we will be a giving a chance for independent payload to go to the Moon for the first time since the 1970’s. The experiment, which will be adjudicated by an international jury, will look to find sustainable ideas to catalyze human evolution into a multi-planetary species.

As you know, there are only three countries that have soft landed on the moon. To take India and its 1.2 billion strong population to the moon would be a huge moment for the country and we are looking forward to making it happen. This will be India’s Apollo moment, catalyzing interest in science education. We have been interacting with schools regularly as part of our outreach to make sure that children are inspired by our mission.

What will happen if you don’t win? A valid question as the competition enters its final phase. Will you proceed with your mission even if you don’t win it?

While we are in it to win it, we believe that the journey itself is an immense privilege. The learning, knowledge and experience accruing from taking up this mission can be used in many related areas. The GLXP Mission and our success in building up the technology for mission will be the foundation for all our future endeavours. That said, we are in it to win it.

Why do you think the commercialization of space is possible?

To answer this question let me draw a parallel. The Internet started out as a government project. But it really came into itself and changed the world as we know it when it intersected with people, ideas and enterprise. We expect that same to happen with space.

Let me ask you a personal question. Why are you doing this and what inspired you to start your Mission to the Moon?

The fact that no Indian team was participating motivated us to come together, form a team and register for the GLXP, despite the fact we have no background in aerospace. It is all about getting space enthusiasts together other than government entities, creating an opportunity for aerospace research and push the boundaries of space exploration in India

On a more philosophical level, I believe that the evolution is about species learning more, exploring more and dreaming more. We are a group of ordinary people who dreamed up this extraordinary mission steadfast in the belief that Moon is just a stepping stone to the next level of human evolution.

SpaceWatch Middle East thanks Julius Amrit, Co-Founder of TeamIndus, for the interview.

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