Astrobotic ready to become delivery service to the Moon
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Not far from downtown Pittsburgh is a somewhat drab commercial area of nondescript brick and concrete buildings, dating back to the days of when steel machine companies ruled the town. Notably, the former site of Westinghouse, where the original air brake was developed. Today, no passersby would suspect that one of these buildings houses a lab for a small fleet of spacecraft and rovers designed to go to the Moon.
But Pittsburgh is also the home of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. It is one of the premier robotics research and education programs in the world, and from that well of talent, and a desire and energy to go to the Moon, came the formation of a company called Astrobotic.
Astrobotic began in 2007 to compete in the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE. The contest challenged private enterprise to innovate and design their own low-cost spacecraft and technologies to accomplish three goals. 1). Successfully land a spacecraft or rover on the Moon’s surface. 2). Travel 500 meters and 3). Transmit high definition video and images back to Earth.
“That was our catalyst to get started,” Astrobotic’s Chief Executive Officer, John Thornton, told Spaceflight Insider. Thornton has been with the company from the beginning, starting as a mechanical engineer and working from the engineering side over to the business side. He took over the company in 2012.
While the Google Lunar XPRIZE might have closed with no winners, in terms of the the new robotics firm – the real winner appears to be Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh for us is a hotbed of robotics talent,” Thornton said. “We have homegrown robotics talent, we import space, and our special sauce here at Astrobotic is space robotics. So its really that combination. We’re bringing that cutting edge robotics into space. And that is, in my mind, the key to many of the new ventures that are going out into space. Rendezvous, docking, Moon landing, all kinds of operations on the Moon and beyond.”
Astrobotic has developed two lunar landers. The larger of the duo, called Griffin, is capable of carrying 1,102 lbs (500 kg) of payload to the Moon. The smaller lander, called Peregrine, is designed to carry 265 kilograms (584 lbs). Both landers are designed to have rovers, experiment modules, and various commercial payloads bolted to the top and undersides of the landers. Upon landing, the payloads can then be activated, or dropped the short distance from the lander to the Moon’s surface to do their designed tasks. The landers essentially serve as a payload delivery service to the surface of the Moon.
The company has also developed a number of lunar rovers designed to carry out different functions at different locations on the Moon. One of the rovers was fitted with a special digging machine, capable of digging a trench in the lunar regolith.
With their landers and rovers and other technical successes, the company for a time was a favorite to win the $20 million grand prize of the GLXP. But in December of 2016, Astrobotic announced they were dropping out of the competition. Thornton stated at the time that the company needed to focus on its own new set of goals, and get away from trying to chase unrealistic prize deadlines. This past January, the GLXP itself was finally cancelled without awarding a winner. Nevertheless, Thornton thinks the contest more-or-less accomplished its goals.
“At the end of the day the prize, I think, created a platform for companies to get started and a platform to have a conversation about something that ten years ago was…crazy.” Thornton said. “But that’s where it started. It started a conversation and ultimately some successful businesses have come out of it. I think it’s a success even though it wasn’t won.”
Today, Astrobotic’s major focus is on the first mission of the Peregrine lander. The manifest of this first mission, interestingly, includes the Japanese Hakuto rover, and Chile’s AngelicvM rover, both former contestants in the GLXP.
“We have 11 deals so far toward mission one,” Thornton said. “We have 35 kilograms that we’ve made available commercially. Then we have an allotment that we’ve set aside for NASA for this upcoming payload purchase that we’re just now seeing the first steps of.” The company will not know the specifics of the NASA payload until later this year or early next year. NASA issued a Request For Information (RFI) last May, seeking ideas from industry on how the agency could possibly participate in uncrewed commercial missions to the Moon. Astrobotic’s NASA payload will likely be a product of that RFI.
In addition to the privately developed rovers from Chile and Japan, a set of much smaller mini rovers will be carried aboard Peregrine from the Agencia Espacial Mexicana, or AEM, the Mexican Space Agency. It will be the first Latin American payload to the Moon.
“We have payloads coming from six different nations,” Thornton said. “Our company’s goal is to make the Moon accessible to the world. And with our first mission we will double the number of nations that have landed on the Moon. It is a great leap forward for humanity and the world to connect to the Moon in ways that have never been possible before.”
A demonstration of this accessibility to the Moon is Astrobotic’s partnership with logistics company DHL, making DHL “The Official Logistics Provider to the Moon.” The DHL sponsorship includes the DHL MoonBox, an opportunity for ordinary citizens to place small personalized mementos into containers that Peregrine will carry to the Moon. The containers can carry items the approximate sizes of a ring or a large coin for between $460 and $1,660.
“It’s not a major money maker for us but its a way to keep our fans engaged and try to connect more people with the Moon,” Thornton said. “We want people to look up in the night sky and see the Moon and say, hey, there’s a bit of my story up there.”
Last year Astrobotic signed an agreement with Atlas Space Operations to carry a laser communications terminal aboard Peregrine. The device will demonstrate the first optical communications capability on the lunar surface, giving gigabit-per-second bandwidth and enabling high definition streaming video to the other payload customers on the mission. Streaming video coming from the rovers deployed by Peregrine will be very useful to the payload customers, and likely of great interest to the public.
Integrating these various payload packages onto the lander and truly making it a payload delivery service to the Moon is the job of Mission Director Sharad Bhaskaran.
“It takes some coordination,” Bhaskaran told Spaceflight Insider. “Taking their operational requirements, their thermal constraints, their power requirements, their mass, and finding locations on the spacecraft for them that both meet their requirements and ensure our spacecraft is properly balanced, and still retain enough deck space for other payloads to mount on, yes, it’s an effort. Also managing schedules, ensuring the payload interfaces and the payloads themselves are not changing their designs late in the flow, and ensuring that our spacecraft is optimally designed to accommodate those payloads.”
The first mission of Peregrine is planned to launch as a secondary payload on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. The Centaur upper stage will then ignite and boost the lander to trans lunar injection (TLI). From there, Peregrine will take over. It is a single-stage spacecraft with five 100 pound-force engines, with a MON25 (mixed oxides of nitrogen, with 25% nitric oxide) propulsion system. From TLI all the way out to the Moon and landing is totally the job of the lander.
“We’ll do trajectory correction maneuvers along the way,” Thornton said. “We’ll drop into a high elliptical orbit to start around the Moon and then we’ll descend that down to a circular orbit. Its probably going to be a little off of full polar orbit. Then we’ll loiter in orbit and wait for our landing site to line up below us, and then we’ll start our descent and land on the surface of the Moon.”
The projected lunar landing site for Peregrine’s first mission is a place called Lacus Mortis, Latin for “Lake of Death.” But Thornton and the Astrobotic team are not intimidated by the name. The site was chosen because it is a mid latitude area with some large flat stretches that provide a safe and open landing spot. The team chose the mid latitudes because it misses some of the higher heat of the day nearer the lunar equator, but is not so far south that the terrain becomes challenging. Once on the surface, Peregrine will beam HD video and streaming content live from the Moon as the mission unfolds.
“Right now we’re targeting 2020 for the first flight,” Thornton said. “They (ULA) are working with us to match us up with a primary payload. We’re about 1,400 kilos wet to TLI. So they just have to match us with the right payload.”
Although Peregrine is capable of carrying 265 kgs (584 lbs), the first mission’s much lighter payload is intended to maximize the mission’s safety margins and give the spacecraft its best chance to prove its capabilities.
“Future missions will increase the payload capacity, and we’ll basically use that to make money,” Thornton said. “Effectively that’s how the business works.”
When Thornton describes the company’s visionary business model and includes the part about landing on the Moon as a matter-of-fact part of the scenario, it does not mean they take that difficult technical feat for granted. Indeed, the company has invested considerable energy and resources in developing their own technologies which they believe will make those landings successful.
The company developed a system of Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) which uses a combination of stereo cameras and a laser or LIDAR sensor, along with software that includes detailed map imagery of the prospective landing site.
“It works very similar to when you go hiking and you look at a hiking map and see there’s a mountain there and a stream over there and a lake over there, then I’m here relative to those features,” Thornton said. The TRN system was tested three years ago on Masten Space Systems rocket propelled suborbital reusable launch vehicle, Xombie, guiding the craft to a safe landing. The company believes their TRN landing system is the highest performance, lowest cost, lowest mass solution for accomplishing precision landing on the Moon.
“It’s a technology that enables navigation without GPS,” Thornton said. “so if you’re ever in a place where you’re GPS-denied or GPS-blocked or GPS-scrambled or you just need a backup system, it’s a very good tool for that.”
The first few missions of Astrobotic landers are expected to last one lunar day, or 14 Earth days. The first Peregrine mission and possibly the next two or three missions will land about two Earth days after local lunar sunrise. This is to ensure that the shadows are appropriate. If they attempt to land too soon after local sunrise, the shadows on the terrain will be too steep and too visually difficult to calibrate the TRN landing system. After landing, the spacecraft will operate on the surface for as long as it has sunlight to keep the solar panels alive. When the landing site passes into the 14-day lunar night, and temperatures drop to -170 C (-274 F), it is anyone’s guess if the spacecraft’s operability will survive the cold.
“For future missions we do intend to overcome that cold,” Thornton said. “We have a battery that we think can survive the liquid nitrogen cold of the lunar night. You can bring it down and then bring it back up and it has the same charge that it had before.”
The battery is only one part of the challenge, Thornton admits. In the intense cold of the lunar night, not only the battery needs to survive, but the instruments and other hardware. One popped solder joint could spell the end for a piece of equipment. And carrying a radioisotope heater unit aboard, as the Russian Lunokhod and Chinese Jade Rabbitt lunar rovers did, is out of the question for a small private space company. But Astrobotic believes they will eventually overcome the thermal challenges of the lunar night.
“If we can do that, then the business shifts a little bit,” Thornton said. “Our early business models are selling kilograms. In the future, if we’re able to survive longer on the Moon, then we can shift our business model to selling watts and selling bits. We can become the local infrastructure on the Moon, and support the payloads for longer periods. So we become part of the infrastructure at that point.”
Thornton’s lunar visions for the future may not be as far off as they seemed just a year or two ago. Or even a few months ago. President Trump’s 2019 NASA budget proposal outlined a new emphasis on getting spacecraft, and eventually astronauts, back to the Moon. The proposal described sending a power and propulsion module into orbit around the Moon to serve as the beginning of construction on a Lunar Orbital Platform, previously referred to as the Deep Space Gateway. According to the proposal, the power and propulsion module would be sent to the Moon in 2022. Of even greater relevance to Astrobotic, the plan envisions using commercially developed lunar landers to transport experiments, hardware, and eventually astronauts, back and forth from the station to the surface of the Moon by the end of the 2020s.
That plan seems to be getting underway. On March 8, NASA announced its intention to enlist a series of robotic landers and rockets to meet lunar payload delivery and service needs. The agency said it will release a draft request for proposals this spring to initiate commercial lunar payload service contracts for delivery to the surface of the Moon as early as 2019.
“Those proposals are very well aligned to what we’ve been doing for the past ten years,” Bhaskaran said. “Everything we’ve been doing points to that.”
The company plans to push their Griffin lander forward as a medium-class lander for the NASA call. Between the new NASA emphasis and existing private interest in the company’s capabilities, Astrobotic could be very busy very soon.
“What we’ve seen that’s very interesting in the payload market is that at first there were only a handful of groups that were interested,” Thornton said. “Now we have over 140 payloads in our sales pipeline that are interested in sending payloads up to the surface of the Moon. These are active conversations that we’re having with folks. So the demand is growing quite quickly.”
So is interest by other space agencies in getting to the Moon. In recent years the space agencies of Russia, China, Europe, Japan and India have all announced plans for science missions orbiting and/or landing on the Moon.
“For us its important to be integral to that direction that many space agencies are going,” Bhaskaran said. “We need to be that low cost, high cadence delivery service so that scientists can get their science done quickly and technologies can be demonstrated quickly. Ultimately that path leads to human exploration and occupation. Our early capabilities will help enable the technologies for future human presence on the Moon. So we are positioned well to do that, and be at the forefront of that.”
After years in which a kind of Mars-centric approach seemed to occupy a great deal of energy at NASA and a great amount of media attention in general, a quiet momentum or relative consensus seems to be building that the Moon is the next natural step in gaining the infrastructure, the know-how, and the experience necessary for exploring deeper into space. If this mindset holds, Astrobotic finds itself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
“In my mind the Moon is our nearest neighbor, and it’s always going to be the first step outward from Earth,” Thornton said. “It’s the natural point where we’re going to learn to live off the land and use the resources of another planetary body. We’re going to learn how to have astronauts on another planetery body in our solar system. In the long term it can become a source of fuel. We need to learn how to camp in our own backyard before we make a trip to the arctic. It just makes sense.”
Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”