Cosmic ambitions: Team Indus is attempting something even ISRO has not tried
Team Indus has been working for years to build and develop a rover, which will possibly skirt the surface of the moon early next year.
From Gravity and Interstellar to Martian and the Guardians of the Galaxy, a vast Space Odyssey has been explored. But, none is as conspicuous as the perky robot from WALL-E. A decade on, a chance simulation of the robot would - hopefully - be making a journey to the moon - albeit on a different mission.
On the right trajectory?
Monikered 'ECA', Bangalore-based Team Indus has been working for years to build and develop this rover, which will possibly skirt the surface of the moon early next year. To be bundled in an indigenously-built spacecraft, the four-wheeled aluminium robot will be launched aboard an ISRO's PSLV rocket from Sriharikota.
There will be an air of anticipation at Team Indus' Mission Operation Control Center post this take-off.
"This is where the journey of the rover across space and its subsequent soft landing and movement on the moon's surface will be controlled," says Srinivasa Hegde, who is heading the mission control for Team Indus.
Carrying nearly four decades of experience in mission planning and analysis - first for ISRO, and now for the aerospace startup - Hegde has been collaborating with space enthusiasts to work out the mathematical aspects of the mission and develop algorithms to control the operation.
The Mission Operation Control Center at Team Indus' campus is Bangalore
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"It is easy enough to build an orbiter - in fact, a basic can be created from simply procuring certain components online and integrating them. The real challenge is to devise algorithms to land it and that is what we are trying to crack," chips in Nirmal Gadde, mission design engineer at Team Indus. "We need to pass certain tests just to qualify for the launch and we are currently in the process of performing them," adds Gadde, who incidentally was the startup's first employee back in 2011.
According to the 27-year-old, the mission can be divided into two distinct phases - orbiting and landing. Orbiting is a well-known industry, but landing missions have been rare. In fact, if it succeeds, Team Indus will become the first private enterprise in the world to build, land as well as have a rover ride the lunar surface.
To the moon and back
Founded by IIT-Delhi alumnus Rahul Narayan, Team Indus is competing in the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP) Challenge for a grand prize of $20 million. Currently among the top five - down from 32 competitive companies across the world - it is the only team from India to get this far in the competition.
"We are attempting something that even ISRO has not tried before and that will be a tall order to fill," says Deepana Gandhi, who works in the flight dynamics team at the startup. "This soft landing will entail controlling the descent of the shuttle on to the surface of the moon at a manageable velocity and that will require high precision with no room for arbitrariness," she adds.
After ensuring the power thermal safety aspects of the spacecraft to maintain the optimal temperature, it will be propelled into space and steered using on-board thrusters before making the landing.
Hegde breaks it down, "The PSLV will launch the shuttle approximately 79,000 km into space and from there we will gradually raise the apogee (the farthest point from earth). Using accurate algorithms to manoeuvre this passage, the spacecraft will cross the equator the same time as the moon, since data about its velocity etc are available at this height. The spacecraft will then undergo a controlled descent and wait for the right opportunity to make the landing.
And thereafter will begin the hardest part of the mission.
The qualification model of the spacecraft that will house the rover
Landing requires Team Indus' engineers to continually recast the spacecraft's velocity, decelerate and make the soft landing on the pre-decided spot - a feat India has no prior experience in. To cap it all, a tight budget and an ambitious deadline has meant that the startup has had to cut corners.
"All standard aerospace companies will typically use a variable thrust engine for descent. That means that the thrust is varied as per demand, which will orient the spacecraft in a particular direction to help make a safe landing. But, we are using a new method which will entail having an array of thrusters which can be controlled digitally, thus mimicking this variable thrust engine," he says.
Hedge does admit that it is a risk, but adds that frugal design is a necessity with a private enterprise like Team Indus. "A big space company will not try to do this, but we have no other option because the mission will not be viable, if not," he adds.
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Shooting for the moon
Organized by XPRIZE Foundation, and sponsored by Google, GLXP was founded in 2007 and will award the team, which is able to land a privately-funded rover on the moon, make it travel 500 meters on its surface and transmit back high-definition videos and images.
After extending the deadline multiple times, the final date for mission completion is March 31, 2018, a decade since it was first announced.
"One of the objectives of GLXP has been to trigger innovative thinking in space exploration and the effort by Team Indus is testament to how that is being achieved," says Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, Senior Director of GLXP, who was in India as part of the nine-member judges' panel to gauge the readiness of Team Indus as it nears launch. "From being the last team to sign up for the competition back in 2010, Team Indus has come a long way in this journey," she adds.
The Google Lunar X Prize officials during a week-long evaluation of Team Indus' progress
Adds Professor Alan Wells, Chairman of the panel and recipient of three achievement awards from NASA, "We have come away from this rigorous exercise impressed by the readiness of the team. They are clearly on the right trajectory to make history."
With half a year to go for the competition, the judges panel - which consists of eminent space scientists and aerospace engineers - will be periodically undertaking a ten-step evaluation process of the Final Five. The other teams include US' Moon Express, SpaceIL from Israel, Japan's Hakuto and Synergy Moon.
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