| Bengaluru |
Published: January 10, 2018 4:02 pm
With reports of cancellation of the contract between ISRO’s Antrix Corporation and a Bengaluru-based startup TeamIndus, the launch of India’s first private mission to the moon seems to be in peril. The reports about the cancellation of the project taken up as a part of Google Lunar XPrize contest has been doing the rounds since June last year.
Though ISRO, its commercial arm Antrix Corporation, and TeamIndus have never officially admitted till date that the TeamIndus launch contract with Antrix Corporation has been cancelled, it is widely admitted that there are serious problems in fulfilling the contract.
Since the emergence of fresh reports of the cancellation of the contract this week, ISRO, Antrix Corporation and TeamIndus have taken the position of offering “no comments” on the issue. As recently as November 2017, the ISRO chairman A S Kiran Kumar, on the sidelines of an international space meet, had stated that further discussions were needed on the contract following the extension of December 31, 2017, launch deadline to March 31, 2017, by Google XPrize.
“They have told us that the deadline has been extended up to end of March and based on this further discussions need to take place,’’ the ISRO chairman had stated when specifically asked about the status of the TeamIndus moon mission launch. The ISRO chairman has also indicated at some media events subsequently that TeamIndus needs to achieve a few monetary and technical milestones.
The TeamIndus head Rahul Narayan has also in multiple discussions suggested that the launch efforts with ISRO are still on, although he has admitted that the startup was struggling to meet financial targets including payments to ISRO for the rocket launch to the tune of nearly $ 70 million.
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“There are a lot of problems with the TeamIndus mission on several fronts,’’ a former ISRO official who has served in the capacity of a mentor to TeamIndus had stated in November last year.
While the inability of TeamIndus to raise the Rs 500 crore or nearly $ 70 million for the launch phase is widely projected as the reason for the launch contract landing in trouble, several other problems like questions raised over the contract in the higher echelons of the government, the failure of the PSLV-C39 rocket in September 2017, a clash between the timelines for the launch of ISRO’s own Chandrayaan-2 moon mission – scheduled for March/April 2018 – and the private TeamIndus launch even as ISRO attempts to get the PSLV rocket up and running again have all been setbacks, says space industry sources.
The murmurs of trouble over the TeamIndus launch contract first emerged in June 2017 when questions began being raised at the government level over the nature of the contract and several specifics that were involved.
A meeting of the space commission in July 2017 deferred a decision on the future of the ambitious efforts of TeamIndus to be the first private mission to the moon even as sources suggested that the deal could be cancelled. “We cannot disclose these things,” Antrix Corporation CEO Rakesh Sasibhushan had stated at the time when contacted.
In a subsequent interview to The Indian Express, Rahul Narayan, TeamIndus’ CEO had expressed hope of fighting his way through the situation which he put down essentially to the raising of funds for payments to ISRO for the launch. He said the extension of the deadline for the contest to March 31, 2018, offered a chance to raise the requisite funds.
“We have been on record to say that this is a $ 60 million to $ 70 million mission. We have raised about a third of that and we have a line of sight or visibility on the next third. The final third is what we have to now go out and get for ourselves. A big part of the money we have raised has gone into engineering – which is obviously the most expensive and time-consuming part of the mission,” Rahul Narayan said with respect to the funding scenario for the mission. TeamIndus had managed to raise some funds by renting out space on its spacecraft to the Japanese Hakuto team but still needed $ 45 million he claimed.
With TeamIndus backed by the likes of entrepreneur Ratan Tata, technocrats like former ISRO chairman K Kasturirangan and Infosys Ltd’s Nandan Nilekani, the startup was expected to be in a position to raise the funding to fulfil the contractual obligations.
In November last year, even as the ISRO chairman stated that further discussions were needed with TeamIndus due to the extension of the contest deadline to March 31, 2018, senior officials associated with ISRO said that the deal was in trouble. “TeamIndus lost a launch window because their spacecraft was not ready. They have not been able to make payments. ISRO has lost a PSLV and lots of work needs to be done on the rocket again,’’ the official said.
TeamIndus which is part of a company called Axiom Research Labs continues to exist despite the setbacks on several fronts and is reported to be hopeful of launching its moon mission either outside of India or with ISRO but at a subsequent date to the deadline – if it can cross key milestones.
TeamIndus which has been aspiring to be the first Indian private space company signed a contract with ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation for a moon mission launch in December 2016. TeamIndus and a Japanese team, Hakuto, were originally contracted to fly on ISRO’s PSLV XL rocket on December 28, 2017, three days before the closure of the deadline for the Google X Prize contest.
The Google Xprize for the first private mission to the moon entails $20 million for the winners who land a rover on the moon and get it to travel a distance of 500 metres, the second team can win $ 5 million and there are bonus prizes of $ 1.75 million for completing an orbit around the moon or descending directly on the surface of the moon. There is also a $ 3 million prize for transmitting data from the moon after a soft landing on the lunar surface.
When the competition was first announced in 2007, there were 34 entries to be the first private mission to the moon. Since then, the number has, however, dwindled down to five.
XPRIZE had announced last year that the five teams with verified launch contracts were SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express (USA), Synergy Moon (International), TeamIndus (India) and HAKUTO (Japan). XPRIZE also said that mission completion deadline had been extended to March 31, 2018, “regardless of the initiation date, in order for teams to win the grand or second-place prizes”.
A Google XPrize team visited Team Indus late last year and approved the progress made by the startup with respect to its moon mission spacecraft.
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