NASA awards first half-million order in lunar data contract

PITTSBURGH, PA – Dec. 20, 2010 –NASA has awarded the initial half-million-dollar task order from a $10 million NASA contract to Astrobotic Technology for a robotic expedition to the Moon.

“The amazingly short turnaround between proposal and award are a testament to NASA’s support for lunar commerce companies like ours,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, chairman of Astrobotic Technology.

The company will design, build, and test the primary structure of its lunar lander under the assignment. After the addition of engines, electronics and departure ramps, the lander will carry Astrobotic’s Moon rover to the surface in an expedition set for 2013.

Astrobotic is a spin out from Carnegie Mellon University, where much of the technical progress is conducted.

Allies in the mission include International Rectifier, Aerojet, Alcoa, ANSYS, Caterpillar Inc., General Motors, Harmonic Drive, Lockheed Martin, SpaceWorks Commercial, Scaled Composites and others.

The 2013 mission has 220 pounds of payload capacity available for customers. Astrobotic is discussing payload terms with space agencies, corporations and universities. 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. The expedition also will pursue up to $24 million under the Google Lunar X-Prize and $2 million from the state of Florida.

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.

The Astrobotic spacecraft will be sent to a lunar trajectory by a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, which earlier this month conducted a successful orbital flight test of its Dragon space capsule for carrying cargo and eventually crew to the International Space Station.

The NASA contract 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.

Another $600,000 task order will be available in 2012, but the remainder of the funds are paid after the spacecraft lands. The contract was awarded under the agency’s Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program.