Rahul Narayan and Indranil Chakraborty with prototype of their moon lander. (TOI Photo)
BANGALORE: This is turning out to be a David vs Goliath story. A poorly funded, rag-tag team in India is now among the top contenders for the Google Lunar XPrize, the grand global competition to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon by December next year.
Team Indus, co-founded by IITians Rahul Narayan and Indranil Chakraborty, have just been named among the five finalists for what are called milestone prizes, teams that have achieved certain technological landmarks and appear closest to reaching the final objective.
The pioneering reality show in space, announced in 2007 by Google and the XPrize Foundation, an education non-profit, promises the world some Gravity-like edge-of-the seat excitement in the months to come. It had 33 teams participating when registrations closed in 2011. Since then, a number of teams have withdrawn or merged, and currently 18 remain, some of which are led by world-renowned robotics and space researchers and super-rich folk.
The competition carries $40 million in prize money and the organizers' objective is to do something humanity has never accomplished: the safe landing of a private craft on the surface of the Moon, and possibly do so at a fraction of the cost that governmental space bodies incur. Teams have to develop a spacecraft that can do a soft landing on the Moon. They have to develop a rover that will dismount from the landing craft and travel 500 metres on the lunar surface. And they have to develop an imaging system on the rover that will capture high quality images and video of the lunar surface and transmit them to Earth.
On Wednesday, the organizers announced milestone prizes for each of these three categories, and Team Indus is among three named for the landing system and among four named for the imaging system. Only two teams -- Astrobotic and Moon Express -- have been named in all three categories. Astrobotic is led by William Whittaker, a research professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, and Moon Express is led by Bob Richards, who co-founded the International Space University in the US in 1987, Naveen Jain, an Indian-origin entrepreneur, and Barney Pell, a former Nasa manager. Of the 18 remaining teams, six are from the US, and others from countries including the UK, Germany, Japan, Israel, Brazil and Malaysia.
"Considering that the landing system is the most complicated and carries the highest prize money (of $1 million), it is safe to say that we are now No. 3 in the race," said Chakraborty.
Chakraborty and Narayan, both now 40, grew up in Delhi, were classmates in Delhi Public School, RK Puram, from Std 6, and then parted ways briefly for their graduation -- Narayan going to IIT, Delhi, for computer engineering, and Chakraborty to IIT, Kharagpur, for aerospace engineering. Both graduated in 1995, and came together again to do startups, including one in software services in 1999.
In 2009-10, when they came to hear about the Google competition, they decided to chuck everything, and put their entire focus on the space venture. "We knew it would not be easy, we knew it would require extreme `startup style' temperament, be able to take big knocks and still get up," Narayan said.
They rustled up the $50,000 that the registration required from friends and family. Most thought they were attempting the impossible, but every time they explained the entire plan to somebody, they inevitably found support. Among them were Sam Pitroda, chairman of the National Innovation Council, K Kasturirangan, Planning Commission member and former Isro chairman, Kiran Karnik, former Nasscom president and former Isro executive, Arun Seth, former British Telecom India head and Alcatel-Lucent India chairman, and Saurabh Srivastava, chairman of CA Technologies India.
As word about the venture got around on social media, people from around the world offered help. Several, including an Indian in the US banking industry, left lucrative jobs to join Team Indus. But many were extremely sceptical.
"I've been involved with so many startups, but I've never seen anything so audacious. When I first met these guys, I thought they were crazy. But when they took me through all that they had done, I was convinced. Now, with the milestone prize announcement, it's become such a motivating story for the country and especially for the youth. This is magic," said Arun Seth.
Kiran Karnik is equally excited: "It's tremendous that these young people were able to pull in expertise from different places to accomplish this. The design is so good. Whatever the eventual outcome, the spinoffs for the country will be great."
The road ahead remains extremely challenging. The teams will receive the milestone prize money only if they demonstrate by September this year that their designs actually work. So now, they have to translate their software designs into hardware (prototypes). One year ago, Team Indus moved from Delhi to Bangalore because Isro, headquartered in Bangalore, is crucial to their future plans -- including to provide the launch vehicle, a PSLV, by December 2015 -- and the city has excellent aerospace companies that can help with building the lander and rover.
Team Indus also needs $34 million (about Rs 200 crore) to build and launch the spacecraft. Isro itself will charge about Rs 100 crore for the launch, and Team Indus cannot ask Isro to reduce its fees because a condition of the competition is that the project must be at least 90% privately funded, and any Isro waiver will be counted as government contribution.
L&T is helping by reviewing designs, Sasken has given space in its Bangalore facility for the team to operate out of, several former Isro scientists are providing advice. Now, the entire team is hoping that their latest accomplishment would generate a national fervour that would get them the $34 million they need. "We believe the US teams are spending some $80-90 million. Isro would spend $70-80 million to do a similar project, and Nasa many, many times more," said Narayan.
Added Chakraborty: "There were at least three points in the last two years when we almost gave up. But each time, new doors opened up. We are hoping this time the entire country will chip in and take pride in having a bit of their effort landing on the Moon next year."
Quelle: THE TIMES OF INDIA