Surviving moon’s off-kilter anomalies

If you are a commercial space company based in India, there’s ample scope for building a business in communication-based downstream services, says K Radhakrishnan, former chairman of Isro. Even globally, if rocket launches and satellite manufacturing make 10% and ground station-related services 35% of the $339 billion global space industry, downstream communication services like satellite phone, internet, television transmission, and earth observation services account for the rest. Soon after the Mangalyaan mission in 2014, Radhakrishnan had commissioned a study to estimate where the 125 companies, which contracted with Isro, and the 500+ vendors in the supplier community had a chance to grow their business.

But if you are in orbital transportation and outer space exploration, then it’s a different game altogether. “In the near term, we are seeing some market in science exploration and some [corporate] marketing,” says John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic Technology, which pulled out of the GLXP in December 2016 even after winning three milestone prizes worth $1.75 million. It’s been selling payload space for $1.2 million per kg for its 2019 mission.

What are the resources?

“In the medium and long term, there will be more interest on the resource and infrastructure side—extracting minerals, mining water for fuel and communication, and power infrastructure,” he says. Does TeamIndus want to get into lunar surface or planetary or asteroid mining and compete with the early movers like Planetary Resources or Deep Space Industries?

Once again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because to get to the outer space business, it needs to get its moon mission right. And that’s where those like Thornton have concerns about the chances of the remaining finalists, including TeamIndus, making it to the final Prize.

It is a much greater challenge to land on the moon than show prototype results on the earth, says Thornton, referring to the laurels of the milestone prizes. First, all your hardware has to survive the launch pressure and the lunar atmosphere. Then it has to operate in the same manner as it does in the earth’s atmosphere. “It requires an awful lot of testing to get there in the first place. When you do tests on earth, you have real-time updates but on the moon, the time lag is one second. You’ve got to get it right the first time and that is what is very challenging,” says Thornton.

As for the soft landing, it’s the toughest part of the mission. Thornton believes one cannot bank on simulations entirely. At Astrobotic, he says, it is a mix of simulation and component-level testing in an environment, which is as close to the lunar environment as it can get. “I can’t get into great details because of protection laws of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation),” he adds. “But when I look at the GLXP teams, they should have been very well into the systems testing by now. But I don’t see that [happening] and it gives me concerns whether anyone would be able to land.”

His observation is spot on. In Bengaluru, TeamIndus is still in the process of completing its test readiness review for various sub-systems. (A satellite is classified into sub-systems like structures, power, avionics, propulsion, etc.) It will move to ‘systems acceptance’ review only in late November.

Funds in a funk

In early May, the company floated an idea for a crowdfunding campaign called TeamIndus Moonshot Crew, to be undertaken from 1 July to 15 August. As a project, it needed $70 million, had raised $30 million and would use the campaign to try and raise $15 million.

The campaign tagline was #HarIndianKaMoonshot and involved “people signing at Rs 500-2500 to get at various prize levels; share name inscriptions on a cube to be sent to the moon and be one of the 50 presents in the control room during launch”. Some volunteers from iSPIRT planned to ‘leverage’ the collective strength of the think tank, which also doubles up as the industry lobby for software products, to get 400,000 Indians to sign up and contribute.

As things turned out, iSPIRT got caught in a social media maelstrom when its co-founder Sharad Sharma was caught anonymously trolling Aadhaar (India’s unique ID project) critics.


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