Does TeamIndus still have a shot at its moonshot?

In keeping with the zeitgeist, the countdown, say, T-6 (months), should have begun in July. A step-by-step guide to the launch from Sriharikota was in order given that it has been branded as Har Indian Ka Moonshot (Every Indian’s Moonshot), accompanied with a new plan to raise $10 million from direct public contribution.

Therefore, the question arises, how ready is TeamIndus to participate in the XPRIZE competition? What are the tech milestones that the company should have achieved by now? If it has, then why isn’t it talking about it? And if it hasn’t, then is it also the reason why some breakaway groups from TeamIndus, which admit the ‘significant’ delay, are starting their own space ventures?

The Contract

First things first. While the company signed a launch contract with Antrix Corporation (Isro’s commercial arm) late last year, some of the necessary approvals to launch its spacecraft on the moon have not yet concluded. The Indian Express first reported it, quoting the Antrix chairman and managing director Rakesh Sasibhushan. Under the Outer Space Treaty, to which India is a signatory, every government is responsible for space activities undertaken by private parties under its geographical territory. While this may require some paperwork and cutting the bureaucratic slack, it is not a challenge that should give sleepless nights to anyone. Little surprise then that TeamIndus co-founder Rahul Narayan told the newspaper: “We have not heard of any questions being raised by the government. We have a launch contract that was signed last year.”

Sources in Isro say the approval per se wouldn’t be an issue because they don’t want “to discriminate against Indian companies launching satellites”. Should that happen, it could lead to a bad precedent where Indian companies would set up subsidiaries in neighbouring countries and approach Antrix as a foreign entity. It’s been a policy gap, which is now being addressed. The old policy did not envisage private companies in India wanting to launch satellites or undertake any space expedition.

Assuming that these approvals, including radio clearances for lander-to-rover communication on the moon, will come on time, what else could be casting a shadow on this private voyage to the moon? Because it’s not just about a lunar trip, it’s about how new enterprises can re-engineer space. “Even though I haven’t followed TeamIndus’ work, to me it is an indicator of how future challenges in space can be addressed. It’s a turning point in Indian space policy,” said K Radhakrishnan, former chairman of Isro.

The countdown

Space enterprises are about perfection and precision testing, and there are a zillion tests and validations in any spacecraft launch. But if one were to come straight to the most critical test, after which the flight model of the spacecraft is usually built, then there’s a bit of a haze. It’s called the qualification test. It tests the design under vibrations and conditions that are more severe than the actual environment the spacecraft would encounter in space. It checks if the satellite will survive the launch and covers a variety of tests including something as simple as checking how the solar cells are attached to the structure.

Back in April, Narayan said that his team was working on the qualification model, which would be “ready by the month-end (April)” and put “to rigorous tests in the next two-three months and, based on the results, we should be able to build a flight prototype”. That did not happen for the next three and half months. On 22 July, TeamIndus said the qualification model would undergo testing at the Isro Satellite Centre (ISAC) in the second week of August. Earlier this month, it said, “The flight model or the actual spacecraft that will fly to the Moon is as good as ready.”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, which probably TeamIndus has done.

Qualification tests can take anywhere from 30-90 days, says TK Alex, former ISAC director and now a member of the Space Commission. If the spacecraft has come “through experienced hands”, then it can sail past the qualification test in 30-45 days, says Alex. Then why hasn’t TeamIndus done its test at ISAC, which it announced in April?

Now imagine that the qualification model hasn’t been greenlighted but the final flight model is “as good as ready”. Traditionally, satellites are not developed in this manner.

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