Astrobotic Technology Books Lunar Explorer SpaceX Falcon 9

Published on February 9, 2011 at 3:53 PM

By Andy Choi

Astrobotic Technology Inc. announced it has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch Astrobotic's robotic payload to the Moon on the Falcon 9 spaceflight launch system. The mission could launch as soon as December 2013.

Astrobotic, a robotics company that grew out of technology pioneered by Carnegie Mellon University researchers, said yesterday it has signed a deal to send its lunar rover robot to the moon -- with room left over for payloads that could range from baby's first tooth to radio astronomy equipment.

Founded in 2002, SpaceX is a private company owned by management and employees, with minority investments from Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Valor Equity Partners. The company has over 1,200 employees in California, Texas and Florida. SpaceX is also developing a family of launch vehicles and spacecraft that is increasing the reliability and performance of space transportation, while ultimately reducing costs by a factor of ten.

Astrobotic Technology Inc. President David Gump said his Oakland-based company signed a contract to send its lunar rover to the moon on a Falcon 9 rocket produced by Space X.

Gump said Astrobotic's moon mission could launch as early as December 2013. The 3-month-long expedition envisioned by Astrobotic would search for water and deliver payloads to the lunar surface, with its robot narrating its adventure while sending 3D video back to Earth.

The company is among 21 competitors vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million prize that will be awarded to the first company to land a robot on the moon, travel 500 meters on the lunar surface and send images and data back to Earth.

Astrobotic officials believe they are the only competitor with a launch contract.

But it's the business potential, as much as the contest that is motivating the drive for lunar ascendency."The moon has economic and scientific treasures that went undiscovered during the Apollo era, and our robot explorers will spearhead this new lunar frontier," Gump said.

He predicted the company will eventually be able to launch a lunar mining robot to recover frozen compounds at the North and South poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for their return to Earth and eventually fuel a Mars mission. A few years back when NASA expected to establish a permanently-manned Moon base, these ices were seen as a likely source of water, which would be invaluable for astronauts' life-support requirements (both for drinking and as a source of oxygen).

Gump said private industry can fund lunar exploration more efficiently than government programs."A typical government lunar landing would cost anywhere from $300 (million) to $500 million, and we can get it done for $100 million or less," he said.

He declined to put a price tag on the Astrobotic launch, but a Space X website estimated the cost of a Falcon 9 launch at $56 million.

Astrobotic predicted the initial mission will receive up to $24 million from Google's Lunar X Prize, Florida's $2 million launch bonus and $10 million from a contract NASA awarded the company in 2010 for access to the expedition's engineering data on lunar landing technologies.

Gump said Astrobotic plans to finance part of the expedition by selling 240 pounds of cargo space on the rocket for $900,000 a pound."There are folks who want to send up instruments to analyze the lunar soil and scientists who would like to send up radio astronomy devices to get started on putting astronomy stations on the far side of the moon. And at $5,000 a gram, you could send up baby's first tooth or grandpa's heirloom tomato seeds," Gump said.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage, 180-foot-long, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene-powered launch vehicle. In December 2008, NASA selected the Falcon 9 and Space X's Apollo-like Dragon Spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station when the Space Shuttle retires. The $1.6 billion contract represents a minimum of 12 flights, with an option to order additional missions for a cumulative total contract value of up to $3.1 billion

The initial mission, referred to as "Tranquility Trek" by Astrobotic, is intended to set down near the famous landing site of Apollo 11 in the Sea of Tranquillity, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the Moon. Astrobotic's solar powered "Red Rover" After an Earthly fortnight, the sun will set over the Sea of Tranquillity and the devastatingly cold lunar night will fall. Not only will the rover be robbed of solar power, but it will become as cold as if it had been plunged into a bath of liquid nitrogen.

The Astrobotic engineers didn't seem entirely confident that they could build a Red Rover tough enough to survive the bitter lunar night. The Soviets could and did do so back in the 1970s: the Lunokhod moon rovers successfully hibernated through many nights by closing their fliptop solar panel lids over their tub-like bodies and keeping the sealed interiors warm using radioisotope heaters.

Without the use of nuclear technology, however, Astrobotic may struggle to achieve the same feat. However the company seems bullish in its latest announcement, with spokesmen stating that they expect the latest Red Rover design to hibernate successfully through several 14-Earth-day lunar nights.

The Falcon 9 upper stage will sling Astrobotic on a four-day cruise to the Moon. Astrobotic will then orbit the moon to align for landing. The spacecraft will land softly, precisely and safely using technologies pioneered by Carnegie Mellon University for guiding autonomous cars. The rover will explore for three months, operate continuously during the lunar days, and hibernate through the lunar nights. The lander will sustain payload operations with generous power and communications.

"The mission is the first of a serial campaign," said Dr. William "Red" Whittaker, chairman of Astrobotic Technology and founder of the university's Field Robotics Center. "Astrobotic's missions will pursue new resources, deliver rich experiences, serve new customers and open new markets. Spurred further by incentives, contracts, and the Google Lunar X-Prize, this is a perfect storm for new exploration."

In addition to Carnegie Mellon, where several prototypes have been built and tested, the mission is supported by industrial partners such as International Rectifier Corporation and corporate sponsors such as Caterpillar Inc. and ANSYS Inc.

NASA awarded the company a $10 million contract in 2010 for access to the expedition's engineering data on lunar landing technologies. The company also has a NASA assignment to design a lunar mining robot to recover the frozen volatiles at the poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for their return to Earth. Other expeditions will explore "skylight" holes and lunar caves as havens from temperature extremes, radiation exposure and micrometeorite bombardment. Astrobotic also plans a robot to circle the moon, outrunning lunar sundown and avoiding the immobilizing cold of the two-week night.

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