Bengaluru: The race to space is heating up around the world, but differently from how it played out five decades ago. Instead of trying to achieve goals for national pride and prestige, the current competition, driven by commercial companies, seeks to monetise space-based services, access to space and space-based resources.
In this space, private efforts to get to the surface of the Moon and providing access to the Earth’s satellite have gained tremendous attention and investment over the last decade.
The origins of this race can be traced to the Google Lunar XPrize, which was launched in 2007 and offered a $20 million prize to any team from around the world that landed a rover on the Moon without significant government support.
Even though none of the teams competing in the competition, including India’s Team Indus, was able to achieve the target, all continued to pursue the goal.
Earlier this year, one of the competitors, a team from Israel called SpaceIL, attempted to land their rover on the lunar surface, but the effort failed to complete its target on account of a component failure. Even so, it became the first private entity to enter the lunar orbit, and was recognised by XPRIZE for the feat.
Other teams from Japan and Germany have secured funding and are moving forward with their attempts.
Meanwhile, NASA is supporting several US-based teams by teaming up with them for the delivery of space and technology payloads to the moon under a programme called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS).
A good place to start comparing India’s ability to enter the commercial lunar race is by analysing the price-to-payload performance that each of the private lunar rovers is planning to deliver.
US-based companies such as Astrobotic, OrbitBeyond (which is planning to use the design of the Team Indus lander) and Intuitive Machines intend to carry 90 kg, 40 kg and 100 kg, respectively, to the surface of the Moon.
Last month, NASA awarded OrbitBeyond $97 million (Rs 679 crore) for carrying four payloads on a lander that intends to touchdown on Mare Imbrium (a mare is a plain formed by volcanic eruptions), while Astrobotic got $79.5 million (Rs 556 crore) for 14 payloads to the crater Lacus Mortis, and Intuitive Machines $77 million (Rs 539 crore) for four payloads to Oceanus Procellarum or Mare Serenitatis.
Other lunar rovers such as iSpace from Japan and PT Scientists from Germany plan to carry payloads of up to 30 kg and 5 kg, respectively.
Astrobotic, whose lander is similar in size to ISRO’s Vikram lander, has published a clear pricing structure, projecting a cost of $300,000/kg (Rs 2.1 crore) for payloads on their orbiter, $1.2 million/kg (Rs 8.4 crore) for payloads on their lander, and $4.5 million/kg (Rs 31.5 crore) for payloads on their rover.
A comparison of the capacity that these companies are trying to establish with ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 points to some early evidence that India’s space agency may be able to offer a better price-performance.
Chandrayaan-2 is scheduled to take off on 15 July and land near the Moon’s South Pole, an uncharted territory, in what has been described as ISRO’s most complex mission ever.
India’s lunar orbiter (carrying eight payloads), lunar lander Vikram (carrying four payloads) and the rover Pragyaan (carrying two payloads) weigh 2,379 kg, 1,371 kg and 27 kg, respectively. The mission cost for Chadrayaan-2 is estimated to be $86 million (Rs 603 crore), apart from the launch cost of $54 million (Rs 375 crore).
If successful, India’s Chandrayaan-2 will establish India’s capability to safely land on the moon and operate a rover on the lunar surface for the first time.
The investment thesis behind commercial lunar exploration companies suggests that there is global interest in sending various kind of payloads to the moon, and that these operators are fighting to secure a pie of this market for themselves.
If the thesis is sound, then there will be a flow of payloads to the lunar orbit and surface, and this puts India in a potential position to exploit the price-performance ISRO can deliver in this market and offer to fly some payloads to the moon’s orbit and its surface in future missions.
The PSLV example
To provide a sense of how this can work, one could look at the way India entered the global commercial launch industry. ISRO exploited the additional capacity on its trusted workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), by offering the additional mass available to global satellite companies. This proved to be a great business, thanks to a combination of the PSLV’s high reliability and competitive launch costs. In 2015-16, for example, ISRO earned Rs 420.9 crore from launching satellites for other countries.
The success of Chandrayaan-2 will prove India’s ability to carry payloads to the surface of the moon. If India plans to continue the exploration of the moon after Chandrayaan-2, some additional capacity on the lunar orbiter and rover can be allocated to commercial payloads. This can help subsidise some of the costs incurred for future missions and potentially provision greater number or frequency of lunar missions undertaken by India.
As PSLV gained popularity in the commercial industry, launch lobbyists made a case for a ban against the use of the Indian launch vehicle because ISRO is a government agency and there were fears that its participation could “distort the conditions of competition” in the launch-services market.
There is no doubt that such challenges may occur if India chooses to compete in the lunar-launch market through ISRO-built capabilities. However, if there are positive externalities for the country and the business case has a sound economic return, the policymakers in the country should take a stand that markets need to decide the uptake to such an offering (as they did with the PSLV).
If a lunar economy truly exists, India’s entry into this niche will indeed be a very interesting one to watch out for.
The writer is a space industry expert and founder of NewSpace India, a networking community for space-related developments in India.