Astrobotic wins $10M NASA contract for lunar expedition

October 15, 2010

PITTSBURGH, PA – October 15, 2010 –Astrobotic Technology today was awarded a NASA contract worth up to $10 million for a robotic expedition to the Moon in April 2013.

Astrobotic revealed that the alliance for this pursuit includes Carnegie Mellon University, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Aerojet, Scaled Composites, International Rectifier, Harmonic Drive LLC and Caterpillar Inc.

The expedition has 220 pounds of payload capacity available for customers at universities, space agencies, and corporate sponsors. The mission also will pursue $24 million through Google’s Lunar X PRIZE and Florida’s $2 million launch prize.

The mission will explore the lunar surface near an Apollo site with a “social” robot able to Tweet and update its Facebook account as it chats with fans on Earth. The robot’s high-definition cameras will show the Moon in 3D as it is directed by amateur drivers over the Web and at science centers.

NASA awarded its contract under the Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) program. It will pay Astrobotic for data about how to land at a precise location, which hasn’t been done by previous Mars and Moon robots, as well as how to avoid last-minute obstacles like boulders and small craters unseen from orbit. The NASA contract also pays for information about how the Astrobotic robot survives the lunar night – two weeks of deep freeze as cold as liquid nitrogen.

Each accomplishment is worth $500,000 to $2.5 million. Astrobotic can collect up to $1.1 million with data delivered prior to launch, and the remainder after its spacecraft lands.

Astrobotic plans to send its spacecraft to a lunar trajectory via a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, a “new space” company that won a $1.6 billion NASA assignment to bring cargo to the International Space Station.

Carnegie Mellon University backs the project with the experience of its Robotics Institute, where several prototype lunar robots have been developed and field tested. The University’s expertise includes winning the DARPA Urban Challenge with a Chevy Tahoe that autonomously drove through city traffic, planning its own path, avoiding obstacles and obeying the California traffic code. This sensing and software technology is being applied to a precision landing on the Moon.

“This private-sector Moon expedition combines small and large companies, and taps into the intellectual capital of the world’s leading computer science and robotics university,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, founder of Astrobotic Technology and the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon. “Together we’ll create a lunar exploration mission at a breakthrough cost that enables public participation from around the world.”

“International Rectifier is pleased to provide engineering expertise and the hardware associated with power conversion and motor drive within the lunar rover. IR has extensive experience in radiation hardened, high reliability power electronics for space missions and looks forward with enthusiasm to participation in this exciting endeavor,” said Fred Farris, Vice President, HiRel Sales and Marketing for IR.

“Aerojet is excited to be a part of the Astrobotic team,” said Carl Stechman, Aerojet lead propulsion engineer. “As someone who worked on the original Apollo propulsion for the lunar lander, I look forward to returning to the moon.”

Astrobotic team member Scaled Composites LLC, which won the first X Prize competition with piloted flights to the edge of space, showed how prizes can spawn new industries: Sir Richard Branson turned its vehicle into the basis for his Virgin Galactic spaceline.

“Harmonic Drive LLC is thrilled to once again work with Red Whittaker and the talented team from CMU and the other Astrobotic alliance partners,” said Doug Olson, CEO of Harmonic Drive. “We have a long history with space flight applications and has manufactured thousands of Harmonic Drive™ gears for satellites, landers, and rovers. Harmonic Drive built the wheel drive gearing system used in the Apollo Lunar Rover Vehicles for the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. We are excited for the opportunity to return to the moon again and take a drive with our alliance partners.”

“As a global company, Caterpillar has been supplying its cutting edge technology to customers around the world for years, and now to be part of a collaboration that is heading into space is simply amazing,” said Eric Reiners, manager of Automation Systems in Caterpillar’s Product Development & Global Technology Division. “The alliance will develop technologies that will ultimately benefit Cat customers as they face the demands of moving to more remote and harsh locations to provide the resources the world demands.”

A unique aspect of the expedition is the inclusion of interdisciplinary arts projects created by students and faculty based in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Fine Arts.

“The many extraordinary artistic projects seek to embody the Earth to the Moon and in turn embody the Moon to the Earth in multidisciplinary interactions involving global audiences,” said Lowry Burgess, a professor who is coordinating this historic Moon Arts project.