Astrobotic: We’ll Sell Lunar Data to NASA


Astrobotic Technology, a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company devoted to robotic exploration of the Moon, announced that it will pursue NASA’s offer to buy up to $10 million in data from a commercial lunar lander mission. The space agency announced its Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program today with a total budget of $30 million.

The company’s first expedition will revisit Apollo 11 in December 2012 to claim a trifecta: up to $10 million in NASA data purchases, up to $24 million in the Google Lunar X Prize, and Florida’s $2 million bonus for launching from that state. The mission will connect the Internet to the Moon, deliver HD video in 3D, carry payloads and convey the experience to the world.

Carnegie Mellon and the company have expended more than $3 million creating prototype robots and mission designs following the 2007 announcement of the Google Lunar X Prize. The new NASA program to buy data from successful commercial landings will accelerate the company’s work on the spacecraft that will carry its robot down to the surface.

“The sensing devices and software needed for an automated lunar landing are evolving from our technologies for driving autonomous cars,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic founder and director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center. “Much of the technology for winning DARPA’s Urban Challenge car race applies directly to lunar landing.”

Astrobotic and CMU are now testing a prototype robot engineered to operate during extreme heat, and to survive lunar night. Soil temperatures at the lunar equator hit 224 degrees F at noon, cooking the rover from below as the Sun bakes it from above. The rover has a hot side with solar panels that it keeps pointed toward the Sun, and a cold side with a radiator that it keeps pointed at black sky. Cameras on top can turn 180 degrees so that operators on Earth can see the path ahead regardless of whether the rover is rolling forward away from the Sun or backward toward it. Lunar night is as cold as liquid nitrogen. Being able to survive lunar night extends the mission to another lunar day, and the Google competition pays a bonus for operating after enduring the night.

The rover weighs 160 lbs. and is about five feet tall. Its “Tranquility Trek” mission to the Apollo 11 site is expected to last 10-12 days, until sunset cuts off solar power and the rover hibernates at temperatures expected to go as low as minus 298 degrees F. The robot will awake for further exploration two weeks later when the Sun rises, unless the extreme cold has damaged the electronics.

Subsequent Astrobotic lunar expeditions will prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions. Astrobotic has just completed the first phase of a NASA contract to design lightweight robotic excavators that can remove the dry insulating soil that covers some of these valuable deposits.

“NASA is turning to companies like Astrobotic and SpaceX to bring down the costs of space exploration,” said David Gump, Astrobotic’s president. “Along with lower costs, the private sector can create innovative events and promotions that involve the public, which is one of the factors that the NASA data buy wants to measure.”