If in August the Google Lunar XPRIZE cheered the finalists by relaxing the launch date from December 2017 to March 2018, on Thursday it kicked off the first formal evaluation process from India. It isn’t surprising that the GLXP has chosen to start with Bengaluru because two finalists are hitching their ride on an Indian rocket, one of whom has chosen a very public path to this mission. In a 10-step evaluation process, the Indian finalist, TeamIndus, has crossed the first step towards the $30-million prize. It has demonstrated the ‘readiness’ of its spacecraft and payload to the visiting judges.
After initial dillydallying, TeamIndus has secured qualification testing of its spacecraft at the Research Centre Imarat (RCI), a defence facility in Hyderabad. The test was initially planned to be conducted at the Isro Satellite Centre in Bengaluru. From the earlier prototype, the qualification model has come a long way. Most significantly in reducing the weight of the structures, from 92 kgs to 58 kgs, which should come as a relief to the team because every gram saved in a space endeavour means cost reduction.
With dozens of cameras clicking away, PS Nair, TeamIndus’ Jedi Commander (Structures), showed the spacecraft with a touch of sangfroid: “The qualification tests were done in record time of one week.” Traditionally, such tests take 4-12 weeks. If all goes well, learnings from such testing would add to the repertoire of what is now termed as ‘new space’ technologies. Derek Webber, vice chairman of the judges’ panel, and a former space industry executive said it was an unusually compressed testing period but such are the ideas and technologies (if they eventually work) that the XPRIZE wants to incubate. “As we evaluate these teams we are even discussing the definition of soft-landing. We are open to new things, we are here to help not hinder the team,” Webber said.
Team HAKUTO of Japan and TeamIndus are competing with three other teams for the GLXP which requires private teams to land a spacecraft on the moon, move a rover for 500 metres and send pictures and video down to earth. The Japanese team is sending its rover on the TeamIndus spacecraft.
There are nine more steps to go before the judges give TeamIndus the green light to dock its spacecraft on the Isro rocket in Sriharikota. The company also unveiled its mission control centre on Thursday which would see the judges visiting again for a review when the full flight rehearsals begin.
In fact, the ongoing first mission plan review isn’t complete yet but it is an opportune way to drum up public support and enthusiasm. Chairman of the panel of judges, Alan Wells from the University of Leicester, who has worked on 10 space missions, was mildly surprised that TeamIndus had organised such a big event because most teams “prefer to do reviews quietly”.