Crazy dream: the former Delhi IT worker in the race to land on the moon

TeamIndus is one of four teams competing to win Googles Lunar XPrize for the first ever private moon landing, worth $20m

To this day, Rahul Narayan doesnt know why he said yes, except that it was the very last day to sign up, and if he didnt agree to it, then there would be no Indian teams in the running. He threw together a proposal and clicked submit.

Perhaps it was the dullness of his day job in IT services, or a last-ditch effort to recapture some adolescent Star Trek-themed fantasy; but once the idea got into his head, it stuck.

And so it was decided Rahul Narayan would send a spacecraft to the moon.

Sitting in his office now, three years since his moon mission started, Narayan talks through the complexities of lunar expeditions. Sometimes, people ask him why he, a software engineer from Delhi, and a complete outsider to the space industry would attempt a lunar landing, a feat that only three countries have successfully achieved so far.

The real answer to that, Narayan says, is that if you were an insider youd never attempt something like this.

If he succeeds, Narayan and his company TeamIndus will be the first private company ever to land on the moon.

But competition is stiff. Three other teams are competing to win Googles Lunar XPrize for the first ever private moon landing, worth $20m. When Narayan signed up, at the end of 2011, there were 30 teams in the running. The competitions elimination rounds have whittled it down to four.

TeamIndus is now racing against MoonExpress, led by Indian-American dot-com billionaire Naveen Jain; SpaceIL, set up by three Israeli engineers, and an international team called Synergy Moon, all planning to launch their spacecrafts in December this year. A fifth team, Japan-based Hakuto will send a rover on TeamIndus spacecraft which will be launched on a government-owned rocket in Chennai, and reach a top speed of 10.3km a second.

After landing at Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Showers, a four-wheeled, solar-powered, aluminium rover, one of the lightest ever to roam the moons surface will beam HD images back to earth as it makes a 500m journey.

If it completes all this successfully and before the other teams, TeamIndus will have done enough to win the Xprize. Money however, is tight. The project has raised only $16m of the $70m it will need. Private investment from friends, family members and Indian entrepreneurs make up part of the pot, selling payload on the spacecraft, corporate sponsorship and crowdfunding, the company hopes, will make up the rest of it.

A model of the moon lander to be used by Indian company TeamIndus.

Narayan started working on the moon mission in 2012, mostly in the evenings and on weekends in Delhi. After a year of juggling between his IT company and his new obsession with the moon, he decided it had to be one or the other, and so left the company, and moved his family to Bangalore, Indias tech capital, and the headquarters of Indias space industry. His wife didnt object. She knows what Im like, he says.

TeamIndus is the only company from a developing country to attempt the moon landing. If we could pick this as a problem statement and solve it, I think we could solve any complex engineering problem, says Narayan.

The company has vague plans to start a satellite programme or develop solar powered drones after the moon mission. But the real ambition, says Narayan was to prove the impossible can be done. I dont think anybody starts something to inspire people, but because what were doing is exceptionally difficult, I think the impact is very clearly cultural and social, he says.

The new space race

Narayans mission appears a long way from the heady days of the 60s and 70s when the US and then USSR spared no expense to explore space. The last few decades have seen some of those dreams die amid severe cuts.

But now, with the rise of China and India in the past two decades a new race for technological ascendancy began. The 37-year hiatus in lunar landings was broken by the China National Space Administration in 2013, when the Change 3 sent back soil samples to earth after successfully performing the first soft landing on the moon in decades.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) plans its own first lunar landing with the launch of Chandarayaan II planned in the next few years. The Indian companys landing however, if successful, could beat its own government to the punch, and make India the fourth nation ever to land on the moon.

Vishesh Vatsal, an aerospace engineering graduate joined TeamIndus when the company only had a handful of employees. He was hired as an intern by Narayan, despite failing technical interviews, and is now responsible for the team working on the spacecrafts lunar descent system, one of the trickiest parts of the entire journey.

Were not the most elite group of Indian engineers that have come together. A lot of people used to laugh at us, he says, recalling one of his first weeks on the job, when Narayan pushed him in front of some executives during a company review. I gave the silliest answers possible. We got ridiculed in subtle ways, he says.

A diagram of the moon lander to be used by Indian company TeamIndus Photograph: TeamIndus

The criticism didnt deter them. In January 2015, TeamIndus became the last of four teams to qualify for the XPrize award.

After that, Indias space scientists started taking them seriously. A number of veteran Isro engineers signed up to help the moon landing. Some like 72-year old PS Nair had even worked on Isros first satellite launch in 1975, and shaped the national space mission from its infancy.

[The] goal is not going to the moon, he says. The goal is to empower industry and the country to do what big, giant organisations have done earlier, and thats the goal of the XPrize too, to popularise hi-tech activity and take it out of the control of big organisations like Nasa or Isro. Thats the real motivation for many of us.

Indias space programme is hugely controversial, especially in the west, with some campaigners arguing millions of pounds of British aid money was being misspent in India.For many, the space mission is a symbol of neglect towards Indias most impoverished citizens, while its delusional elites reach for superpower status.

Sheelika Ravishankar, head of marketing and outreach, argues the countrys ventures are a huge source of national pride. Different parts of India care about what were doing in different ways, she says, recalling an auto rickshaw driver who donated a part of his salary to TeamIndus after one of the companys employees told him about the moon mission on his way to work, or a man who left a board meeting to donate 2m rupees (23,800) when the cash-strapped company urgently needed to test its spacecraft.

Folks are coming forward to say this is architecting a new India, which is technologically advanced, which is bright, which is not the last stop of IT services where you backend to the cheapest country. This is the front of technology.

As the launch deadline draws closer, teams are working faster than ever to test and enhance their models. A misplaced particle of dust or a simple electronic malfunction could derail the whole mission.

Many see TeamIndus as underdogs in the moon race, up against teams with vast resources.

But Ravishankarsays being in the race, and in it to win, puts India on the map.

This proves that you can get state of the art technology coming out of India. It is proof, that you dont have you be a huge team of rocket scientists with the deepest pockets to do research. Its also for the rest of the world to see that anybody can put together a crazy dream. I mean, how much crazier can you be than to look at the moon and say, hey, Im going there?

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Moon may have formed from flurry of impacts on the ancient Earth

New computer simulations counter widely-held belief that moon was formed from a single massive collision

The moon may have formed after an ancient rocky bombardment that pummelled the Earth and sent trillions of tonnes of debris into orbit, scientists say.

Computer simulations show that a flurry of impacts over 100m years could have kicked up enough material to form orbiting moonlets, which gradually merged to make the moon.

A pelting from 20 rocky bodies, some moon-sized themselves, and some as large as Mars, would have been sufficient to do the job, according to researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

The proposal contradicts the widely-held view that the moon was born from a single whopping collision in which a Mars-sized object landed a glancing blow on the fledgling Earth and blasted 70 billion billion tonnes of rock into space.

While popular, the idea that the moon was created in a one-off collision raises questions of its own. If the colliding body had a different chemical makeup to Earth, then traces of it should be seen in moon rock. But so far, tests have failed to find any sign of foreign material in the moon.

One possibility is that the body that crashed into the ancient Earth was made of exactly the same stuff as our planet. But Raluca Rufu, an author on the latest study, said that seems unlikely: in contrast to the Earth and moon, meteorites and other material in the solar system vary substantially in their chemical signatures.

Rufu ran a series of computer simulations to see whether a prolonged pelting from objects in the early solar system could have dislodged enough material from Earth to build the moon. In the computer models, some impacts were head-on and flung huge amounts of Earth rock into space, while others struck at shallower angles and lent the Earth its spin.

We see that multiple impacts will have a high probability of building a moon with similar composition to the Earth, Rufu said. With 20 impactors, it would take about 100m years to build the moon. Details of the study are published in Nature Geoscience.

The simulations showed that high energy impacts often sent plumes of debris filled with Earth rock up into space, where they formed discs around the planet. The material in each disc then clumped together into a moonlet which slowly spiralled outwards to coalesce with other moonlets and form a single, larger moon. The moon is still receding from Earth today, its orbit increasing by 4cm a year.

Rufus proposal that the moon could be made from 20 impacts relies on all of the collisions forming moonlets that gradually coalesce into one larger body. In reality, the making of a moon is unlikely to be so straightforward. Her focus now is to model moonlet mergers to see how efficient the process might have been. As a scientist you always have to ask is it true or not? If you have too much confidence in your theory something is wrong, she said.

Gareth Collins, a planetary scientist at Imperial College, London, said that building the moon from a flurry of impacts was an appealing way to explain why the moon seems to have the same chemical signature to Earth. Its quite difficult, in one go, to get a lot of the Earth into orbit to form the moon. It can be done, but it requires very specific conditions which are rare, and you end up spinning the whole system a lot, he said. Whats nice about building the moon in stages is that some of the impacts can get stuff off the Earth and into orbit, and another set can set the Earth spinning.

But Collins is not convinced. Instead of the moon forming in stages, he thinks that whatever hit Earth all those millions of years ago may have had the same chemical makeup after all.

The best shot at an answer may come from the Chinese space programme. Later this year, the nations space agency aims to send the Change 5 to the moon to collect and return the first moon rocks since the Apollo missions. If we had more lunar samples, that would be very helpful, Rufu said. One giant impact should produce a more homogenous rock, but under our scenario, Id expect the composition to vary between different regions.

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Vera Rubin obituary

Astronomer who found evidence of the existence of dark matter and became an inspiration for women in science

Vera Rubin once tweeted: Dont let anyone tell you that you arent good enough. My science teacher once told me I wasnt good enough for science and look at me now. In the 1970s and early 80s Rubin, who has died aged 88, established that the stars in the outer regions of galaxies move at similar speeds to those in the middle, a result that led to the hypothesis that most of the universe is invisible, the cosmos filled with dark matter, mysterious stuff whose nature is still unknown. During recent years she became a popular favourite for a Nobel prize, but never received the accolade. Having battled sex discrimination throughout her career, she became an inspiration for women in science.

In the outer regions of the solar system, far away from the sun where the force of its gravity is more feeble than hereabouts, planets move more slowly than the Earth. Were Uranus to move as fast as us, it would escape from the solar system entirely, its centrifugal thrust too large for the weakened inwards gravitational pull from the sun. This has been understood since Isaac Newton in the 17th century, and is a cornerstone of Einsteins general relativity: bodies orbiting a central mass will have speeds that fall in proportion to the square root of their distance from the centre.

Many galaxies of stars form spirals, where relatively few stars in the outer arms orbit around a dense mass of stars at the centre. Here too, the laws of gravity imply that the outer stars should move relatively slowly compared to those nearer the central mass. But when Rubin mapped the motion of stars in spiral galaxies, she discovered that, far from slowing with distance from the centre, they moved at similar speeds, or even travelled faster the further out they were.

Rubins results implied that the galaxies are rotating so fast that they should fly apart. Either Newtons law of gravitational attraction, and by implication Einsteins general relativity, form an incomplete description on cosmic scales, which would be truly revolutionary, or there are vast volumes of unseen matter that provide additional gravitational grip on the stars. This unseen stuff has become known as dark matter dark in that it does not shine in the electromagnetic spectrum at any wavelength.

The concept of dark matter has become one of the most exciting insights into our place in the universe. Where Copernicus removed the earth from the centre of the universe in the 16th century, and the discovery of galaxies in the 20th century showed our sun and Milky Way to be mere bit players in the cosmos, Rubins discovery seemingly implies that matter, as we know it, consisting of atomic electrons, protons and neutrons, is but flotsam on a vast sea of dark matter. Current estimates are that dark matter outweighs our stuff by a factor of 10 to 20. So, following Rubins breakthrough, we now believe that we are not even made of the same stuff as most of creation.

Vera was born in Philadelphia, younger daughter of Philip Cooper, an electrical engineer, and Rose Applebaum, who worked for the Bell Telephone Company. The family moved to Washington DC when Vera was 10, and it was there that she developed an interest in astronomy. She was attracted to Vassar College as an undergraduate because Maria Mitchell, the first American to discover a comet, had worked there. After gaining a BA in astronomy in 1948, her first choice for graduate school was Princeton, but she never received the graduate prospectus, as women were not admitted to the graduate programme until 1975. Instead she joined Cornell University.

At Cornell in 1948 she met Robert Rubin, a fellow graduate student, whom she married. Following a masters at Cornell in 1951, she completed a doctorate at Georgetown University in 1954, where she studied the motion of galaxies. Edwin Hubble had discovered that galaxies are on the average rushing apart from one another, the key to the theory that the observable universe is the result of a big bang some 13.8bn years ago. Rubins thesis in 1954 showed that galaxies are not distributed uniformly throughout the universe, but tend to cluster and rotate around one another.

Rubin became an inspiration for women in science, especially, and further afield. She had four children, and most of her early career as an astronomer was part-time, so that she could be at home by the time the children returned from school. All four of her children later gained doctorates in mathematics or the natural sciences.

In 1964 Rubin became the first woman to use the Palomar Observatory in southern California. Her first discovery there was that it did not have toilet facilities for women. She returned to her office, cut some paper into the shape of a skirt and stuck it on the image of the person on the toilet door.

It was at Palomar, in a series of papers during the 1970s and early 1980s, that she made her most famous discoveries. She became a staff member at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in 1965, and it was with a young Carnegie colleague, Kent Ford, that she determined the distribution of mass in spiral galaxies by measuring their speeds of rotation.

Among many honours, she was a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, won the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society the first woman to have done so since Caroline Herschel in 1828 and asteroid 5726 Rubin was named after her. She received several honorary doctorates, including one from Princeton University half a century after having been barred from their graduate programme.

Her husband died in 2008, and her daughter, Judy, in 2014. Rubin is survived by three sons, Allan, David and Karl, five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Vera Florence Rubin, astronomer, born 23 July 1928; died 25 December 2016

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