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The young Indians who are shooting for the moon

Last updated on: December 22, 2015 09:20 IST
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The atmosphere at the sparkling new Axiom Research Labs facility is informal and collegial.

This is not surprising, since most of Axiom's 80-strong workforce is just out of college.

It's also geeky. Equations, diagrams and Star Wars references are scribbled across the many whiteboards scattered around the open-plan office, a stone's throw from the Bengaluru-Hyderabad highway.

That's to be expected since almost everyone on campus has a science/engineering background. It's driven: people walk quickly, conversations are brief and pointed.

The lunar rover that will traverse across the moon's surface. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

But there's also a sense of collective excitement and plain old-fashioned fun.

People seem to enjoy themselves. The young men and women here all opted out of safe jobs and decided to shoot for the moon instead -- literally.

This makes Axiom a rarity in the aerospace business. Its flagship is Team Indus.

Some time before December 31, 2017, Team Indus aims to land a vehicle on the moon.

A rover will roll out from the lander and travel at least 500 metres "along an interesting path in a deliberate manner" across the moon's surface. That rover will then establish a data link with Earth and transmit two HDTV video broadcasts of at least eight minutes each, covering the moon landing and movement.

The mission must also receive and retransmit other data to Earth and perform a few other tasks.

That lander and rover must be designed by Team Indus. No more than 10 per cent of the necessary financing for the moon mission can come from government sources. If Team Indus pulls this off, it will fulfil the terms of the Google Lunar XPrize, or GLX, and it would be eligible to win a share of $30 million.

A prototype rover being tested on uneven surface similar to the one's on the moon to better gauge the vehicle's mobility. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

Team Indus is the only Indian outfit out of 20-odd competitors. It has already won a milestone award of $1 million for its lunar lander design. If Team Indus does become the first team to fulfil all mission requirements, it could win $20 million. If it's the second team, it could win $5 million.

Nobody has ever put together a privately funded lunar lander and rover and sent it to the moon.

The prize has been hanging fire now since 2007 with the deadline being extended multiple times.

But nobody on the Axiom campus -- not even the guards from the security agency -- seems to have the slightest doubt that Team Indus can do this.

That certainty filters down right from the top. The company has the chutzpah to declare that its "selenographic address" ("which will be functional sometime after 2015") is Lunar Zone: Sinus Medii (0.50N Selenographic latitude, 1.50W Selenographic longitude).

For non-geeks, it means that the landing site has already been chosen.

Indeed, the facility includes a mockup of the landing spot where the local terrain has been recreated, complete with "lunar dust", to test the rover's performance.

The lunar rover is everything that NASA can build and more. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

It started as a madcap project back in 2010. Rahul Narayan, a 40-something entrepreneur and Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi graduate wondered if the terms of GLX could be met. He talked to many of his pals who had similar backgrounds. Every one of them was captivated by the dream of going to the moon.

They persuaded GLX to accept a late entry and put together a company.

In 2011, Narayan says, they crossed an inflection point and realised the dream could become reality.

Team Indus made a presentation to K Kasturirangan, the retired chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO. He approved of some of the concepts in that presentation, and disagreed with others. But he thought it was possible and he promised to put in a word where it counted.

In fact, Kasturirangan was pretty enthusiastic and said that Team Indus embodied "the spirit of modern India and a flavour of its future". A little later, Team Indus met APJ Abdul Kalam who was also extremely encouraging. Various doors started opening at that point.

The first tranches of cash were raised by the founders coming up with some money from their personal accounts.

The first employees recruited themselves. Some college students landed up, asking to be allowed to intern with the company that was then situated in Noida. They told their friends and juniors, and a pipeline was created.

Several lunar rovers that are being tested by the teams. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

Dhruv Batra is one of the old-buddy network Narayan tapped. He manages project delivery. He made alternative arrangements to run his Delhi-centric business and moved to Bengaluru when Team Indus shifted out of Noida.

Ramnath Babu, who now heads the structures team for Team Indus, was based in Mumbai from where he was running his business. He moved, first to Noida and then to Bengaluru, cajoling his brother to take over his business so that he could get involved in the mission.

Babu and Batra say that absolutely everybody has stretched selflessly to help Team Indus. Equipment that they thought would take six months to fabricate was delivered in 100 days. Teams at the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, and at the National Aerospace Lab, Bengaluru, worked overtime to test equipment for Team Indus.

Sheelika Ravishankar, who handles HR and other soft functions, says she originally pitched in part-time just to help set things up.

Part-time turned into full-time and she jokes that despite being the only person in Team Indus without a science/tech background, she has ended up interviewing people for the most arcane engineering functions. Ravishankar says there's been a steady stream of boys (and a few girls) wanting to first intern and then work when they graduate.

The base of the lunar module that will land on the moon. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

Most of the younger members of Team Indus went to topnotch engineering colleges. They could have gone on to do much safer (and boring) things.

Instead, these 24-year-olds spend weekends working because they really like what they're doing. 

Vishesh Vatsal practically dances with delight as he draws a squiggly flight path to explain how the landing will take place. Suranjan Mallick turns into a muffled voice under the mock-up of the lander as he explains how the paired rockets will be vectored to ensure changes in flight directions. Guruditya Sinha waves his arms in three directions as he shows how the telemetry and telecommand system will work.

There is pride alongside the passion. Everybody is well aware that Team Indus represents India. They know that winning the GLX would be seen as another big achievement for India in space.

That passion and pride may be infectious but it also needs direction. This is where the third management layer comes in. In demographic terms, Team Indus is unusual. There are the 25-year-olds who form the bulk of the project team. There are a few people in their 40s -- the founders.

The rover being tested for mobility and durability. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

Up above everyone, in terms of age and experience, there is the panel of technical advisers. All of them are retired ISRO personnel. PS Nair and NC Bhat worked on the Aryabhatta Project, which launched India's first satellite way back in 1975. RV Perumal, P Natarajan and RK Sharma are the other veterans with wide ranging expertise.

Incidentally, the internal designations draw on the Star Wars universe. The founders are Jedi Masters. The tech advisers are Jedi Commanders. There are also Troopers and Skywalkers and presumably, padawans.

The unusual dynamic works brilliantly. The ISRO veterans quickly rule out approaches that are unlikely to work. They understand processes and they know how to test equipment, for instance. They are completely familiar with the Indian space ecosystem.

The Team Indus logo adorns one of their instruments. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

At the same time, the veterans seem to enjoy the fresh approach of the youngsters they interact with. For their part, the youngsters (and the founders) are all praise for the "sirs" and their ability to find rapid solutions as well as do the meticulous work of testing everything.

ISRO encouraged the creation of a space-industrial complex because it tendered out to private vendors.

Although Team Indus cannot take government financing, it is relying heavily on that ecosystem to fabricate its designs and to test.

Team Indus has hired testing facilities at the Space Applications Centre and National Aerospace Laboratories.

The lander will launch on ISRO's trusty PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). Again, this is where the technical advisors have come in handy -- they know everybody and have ensured complete compatibility.

Everything will be designed by Team Indus and components sourced from everywhere will finally be put together at the Axiom facility.

There are three formal partners: L&T's heavy engineering division is helping put the lander and rover together, while Sasken Communications and Tata Communications are aiding with the communications and control systems.

An artist's recreation of the lunar lander's opening on the moon's surface. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

There are multiple vendors: at least 120 from all over the world. The lander's engines and rockets, for instance, may come from Japan. The solar panels may be sourced from America and the battery could be British.

The lander, which will have the rover stored inside it, will be fitted on top of a PSLV rocket that will launch the lander into earth-orbit.

The lander will then use its own engine to match orbits with the moon. It could take nine swings or even more to rendezvous. Once that is done, it will use its eight auxiliary rockets to make course corrections and land at the designated spot.

After the lander is securely down, a panel will open and the rover will roll out. The rover will then start moving around (very slowly) and recording video.

The lander will relay that video to Earth. Everything will be monitored from the earth stations.

A prototype of the lunar capsule on display. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

The engineering problems are formidable. The entire landing sequence has to be pre-programmed and autonomous.

There is a lag of almost four seconds when relaying signals to the moon and back. Unlike Chandrayaan, the lander must remain in working condition because it has to relay signals. Redundancy must be built in because component failure could otherwise jeopardise the whole mission.

The equipment within the lander must be protected, not only from the physical shocks of takeoff and landing but also from the heat generated by its rockets. On the moon, internal temperatures must be controlled, though the external temperature will vary a lot.

Before getting to the moon, the lander will pass through the Van Allen radiation belt.

All the delicate electronic equipment must be radiation-hardened to keep it from getting fried. There will be periods of eclipse, when solar panels will be ineffective. The solar panels must open correctly and be properly oriented.

The young brains seen at work on the lunar module. Photograph: Team Indus/ Facebook

Narayan guesses it could take over $30 million for the mission. Axiom has raised money several times. It started with the founders pitching in.

There was a funding round in March 2015 with investors like Nandan Nilekani and Ajai Chowdhry coming in. Another round of funding is currently in progress. There is talk of a possible round of crowd-sourced corporate funding.

There are two other concurrent projects, which should eventually pay their way.

One is satellite bus development, which involves figuring out spacecraft designs that can effectively launch multiple satellites. The other is the development of high altitude long endurance drones.

Eventually, Axiom might become a profitable aerospace company that earns its bread and butter from drones and satellite buses. But GLX will be a hard act to beat -- in the public imagination at least.

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