To Win Google Lunar X Prize, Astrobotic Technology Goes Big


While many of the competitors for the Google Lunar X Prize are building rather small vehicles to keep costs down, Astrobotic Technology has gone in the other direction in order to maximize revenues.

In addition to delivering a rover, Astrobotic’s lander can carry up to 110 kg of third-party payload to the lunar surface. At a cost of between $1.8 million to $2 million per kilogram, a fully sold out mission would earn Astrobotic around $200 million in revenues – more than enough to pay for the mission.

The table below shows the payload capabilities for the lander and rover. The 110 kg. payload can be divided between the two vehicles; if the rover had 25 kilograms, then the lander is left with 85 kilograms.

Lander Payload

Rover Payload

Mass:

Up to 110 kg w/ rover
210 kg w/o rover

Mass:

Up to 25 kg

Cost:

$1.8 M/kg

Cost:

$2 M/kg

Power:

300 Whr per kg mass purchased (Additional watt-hour is $300/Whr)

Power:

150 Whr per kg mass purchased (Additional watt-hour is $600/Whr)

Comm: 

100 MB per kg mass purchased (Additional megabyte is $2K/MB)

Comm:

50 MB per kg mass purchased
(Additional megabyte is $4K/MB)
Source: Lander & Rover Payload User Guide

Doing a few quick calculations, we find the following revenue possibilities:

Third Party Payload

Cost per Kilogram, Millions

Revenue, Millions

110 kg. on lander$1.8 M$198
85 kg on lander, 25 kg on rover$1.8 M/2.0 M$203 M
210 kg on lander, no rover$1.8 M$378 M

Astrobotic President David Gump doesn’t expect to make that much on the first mission.

“I would love to sell out, but I don’t expect to do so,” Gump told me. “We’ll be heading toward launch in about three years, and many of our space agency customers will be hard pressed to engage with us, ready their payloads, and get approval from their budget authorities in that short a time. We’ll sign contracts with the fast movers for the initial mission, and those with harder pathways will fly on later missions.

“We will add on some of our own payload simply to take up the slack, rather than to displace paying customers,” he added.

I also asked Gump about how much gross and net revenue the company is expecting on its first flight from third-party payloads.

“The gross really depends on how many payloads can get to contract status in time to make the first flight, and that’s very hard to predict now,” Gump responded. “A few 40 kg payloads would fill us up fast; if we slog it out 5 kg at a time, then reaching a high gross is harder. You can bound the possibilities: 110 kg of capability times $1.8 to $2 million per kg, or zero kilograms sold. Obviously, we have to reach some threshold of payload, plus revenue from sponsorships and media, in order to make the mission feasible.

“Once we’re confident of at least $10-$20 million of net, then we’ll know we can be sure of a specific launch date and destination. We’ll keep selling to get as close as possible to the maximum revenue before time runs out,” he added.

Astrobotic is offering a number of possibilities in terms of sponsorships and media rights. According to the company’s website, these opportunities include:

  • logo placement on the lander and rover
  • title sponsorship (“The XYZ Moon Trek”)
  • “Drive on the Moon” promotion that would allow winners to control the lunar rover (“The lunar driving rights could be controlled by an automotive company, or a gaming company could reward high scores with the opportunity to a truly ‘higher level’ of play.’)
  • Rocket Reporter competition “to find a person with the right talents to communicate the mission’s adventure to the public, as a co-host with a professional presenter.”
  • Communications sponsorship “to send text messages and e-mails via the Moon. The rover will have the ability to relay text messages and e-mails ‘postmarked’ with a snapshot of the lunar surface being crossed at the moment of relay.”
  • Educational events and promotions for all age groups from kindergarten through graduate school.
  • The selection of a songwriter to premiere a new piece of music from the surface of the moon.

So, what do clients with payloads on the rover get? Three possible mission lengths are listed in Astrobotic’s user’s guide:

Floor Duration: 4 earth days, 500 m
Baseline Duration: 12 earth days, 10 km
Extended Duration: 90 earth days, 20 km

Astrobotic is planning annual missions to the moon. There will be a longer gap between first mission and the follow-up one, as shown in the table below.

Mission

Launch Date

Vehicles

Landing Site

Payload

Moon CruiserDec. 2013
to April 2014
Falcon 9/ Lander/ RoverAn Apollo site or skylight entrance to lava tube110 kg
Polar ExcavatorJuly 2015Falcon 9/ Lander/ RoverSouth Pole110 kg
Customer DrivenQ3 2016Falcon 9/ Lander/ [Rover]Customer Driven210 [110] kg

These are pretty exciting plans. If Astrobotic can execute on them, then the era in which space agencies spend years building and planning lunar missions will be over. This will be very exciting to watch.