March 19, 2018
PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Not far from downtown Pittsburgh is a somewhat gray commercial area of brick and concrete buildings, from the time when steel machine companies ruled the city. Notably, the old site of Westinghouse, where the original air brake was developed. Today, no passer-by would suspect that one of these buildings houses a laboratory for a small fleet of spacecraft and rovers designed to go to the Moon.
But Pittsburgh is also home to Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University . It is one of the main research and education programs in robotics in the world, and from that talent pool, and a desire and energy to go to the Moon, came the formation of a company called Astrobotic.
Astrobotic  started in 2007 to compete in the $ 30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE. The contest challenged private companies to innovate and design their own spacecraft and low-cost technologies to achieve three objectives. 1). Successfully land a spaceship or an explorer on the surface of the Moon. 2). Travel 500 meters and 3). Stream high-definition video and images to Earth.
"That was our catalyst to start," said Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton, Spaceflight Insider . Thornton has been with the company from the beginning, starting as a mechanical engineer and working from the engineering side to the business side. He took over the company in 2012.
While Google Lunar XPRIZE could have closed without winners, in terms of the new robotics firm, the real winner seems to be Pittsburgh.
"Pittsburgh for us is a hotbed of talent in robotics," said Thornton. "We have homegrown robotic talent, we import space, and our special sauce here at Astrobotic is space robotics, so it's really that combination, we're taking that cutting-edge robotics to space, and that's, in my opinion, the key to Many of the new companies that are coming into space: Encounter, berth, moon landing, all kinds of operations on the Moon and beyond. "
Astrobotic has developed two lunar modules. The largest of the duo, named Griffin, is capable of carrying 1,102 lbs (500 kg) of payload to the Moon. The smallest landing module, called Peregrine, is designed to carry 265 kilograms (584 lbs). Both landing modules are designed to have rovers, experimental modules and several commercial payloads bolted to the top and bottom of the landing modules. When landing, the payloads can be activated, or the short distance can be dropped from the lander to the surface of the Moon to perform the designed tasks. The landing modules serve essentially as a cargo delivery service to the surface of the Moon.
The company has also developed a series of lunar rovers designed to perform different functions in different places on the Moon. One of the rovers was equipped with a special excavator, capable of digging a trench in the lunar regolith.
With their landers and rovers and other technical successes, the company for a time was the favorite to win the $ 20 million grand prize. GLXP But in December 2016, Astrobotic announced that it was abandoning the competition. Thornton said at the time that the company needed to focus on its new set of goals, and move away from trying to pursue unrealistic rewards. Last January, the GLXP itself was canceled without awarding a winner. However, Thornton believes that the contest more or less met its objectives.
"At the end of the day, the award, I think, created a platform for companies to start and a platform to talk about something that ten years ago was … crazy," Thornton said. "But that's where it started." A conversation started and finally some successful companies have left it. I think it's a success even though it was not won. "
Today, the main focus of Astrobotic is on the first mission of the Peregrine landing module. The manifesto of this first mission, interestingly, includes the Japanese Hakuto rover and the AngelicvM rover from Chile, both previous contestants in the GLXP.
"We have 11 agreements so far for mission one," Thornton said. "We have 35 kilograms that we have made commercially available, so we have an allocation that we have reserved for NASA for this next payload purchase, of which we are just looking at the first steps." The company will not know the details of the payload. NASA until the end of this year or early next year. . NASA issued an Information Request (RFI) last May, seeking industry ideas on how the agency could possibly participate in unsantosed commercial missions to the Moon. The payload of Astrobotic at NASA is probably a product of that RFI.
In addition to the rovers developed in Chile and Japan, a set of much smaller mini rovers will be transported aboard the Peregrine of the Mexican Space Agency or AEM, the Mexican Space Agency. It will be the first payload in Latin America for the Moon.
"We have payloads from six different nations," Thornton said. "The goal of our company 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 a way that has never been possible before. "
A demonstration of this access to the Moon is the association of Astrobotic with the logistics company DHL, making DHL logistics provider for the Moon. "DHL's sponsorship includes the DHL MoonBox, an opportunity for ordinary citizens Place small personalized souvenirs in containers that Peregrine will take to the Moon Containers can carry items about the size of a ring or large coin for between $ 460 and $ 1,660.
"It's not a great money generator for us, but it's a way to keep our fans engaged and try to connect more people with the Moon, "Thornton said." We want people to look up into the night sky and see the moon and say, hey, there's a bit of my history up there. "
Last year Astrobotic signed an agreement with Atlas Space Operations to carry a Hawk Pilgrim laser communications terminal, the device will demonstrate the first optical communications capability on the lunar surface, giving a bandwidth of gigabit per second and allowing the transmission of high definition video to other payload clients in the mission. The video transmission from the rovers deployed by Peregrine will be very useful for payload customers, and is probably of great interest to the public.
Integrating these various cargo packages into the lander and actually turning it into a delivery service to the Moon is the job of Mission Director Sharad Bhaskaran.
"It requires some coordination," Bhaskaran told Spaceflight Insider. "Take your operational requirements, your thermal limitations, your power requirements, your mass and find locations in the spacecraft for them that meet your requirements and ensure that our spacecraft is properly balanced, and still retain enough deck space for you to Other payloads are mounted on Yes, it is an effort also managing schedules, ensuring that payload interfaces and payloads do not change their designs at the end of the flow, and ensuring that our spacecraft is optimally designed to accommodate those payloads. "
The first Peregrine mission is planned to be launched as a secondary load in an Alliance Launch United Atlas V. The upper stage of the Centaur will turn on and drive the lander until the translunar injection (TLI). From there, Peregrine will take over. It is a single-stage spacecraft with five engines of 100 pounds of force, with a MON25 propulsion system (mixed oxides of nitrogen, with 25% nitric oxide). From TLI to the Moon and the landing is totally the work of the lander.
"We will make the trajectory correction maneuvers along the way," said Thornton. "We are going to fall into a high elliptical orbit to start around the Moon and then we will descend into a circular orbit, probably going to be a bit out of full polar orbit, then we will stay in orbit and wait for our landing site to line below us, and then we will begin our descent and land on the surface of the Moon. "
The lunar landing site projected for Peregrine's first mission is a place called Lacus Mortis, in Latin for "Lake of Death". But Thornton and the Astrobotic team are not intimidated by the name. The site was chosen because it is an area of medium latitude with some large flat stretches that provide a safe and open landing site. The team chose the middle latitudes because part of the highest heat of the day is lost closer to the lunar equator, but it is not so far south that the terrain becomes a challenge. Once on the surface, Peregrine will stream HD video and live broadcast content from the Moon as the mission unfolds.
"At the moment we are aiming for 2020 for the first flight," said Thornton. "They (ULA) are working with us to pair us with a main load, we have about 1,400 kilos wet for TLI, so they have to match us with the correct payload."
Although Peregrine is capable of carrying 265 kg (584 kg) lb), the much lighter payload of the first mission aims to maximize the safety margins of the mission and give the spacecraft its best opportunity to demonstrate its capabilities.
"Future missions will increase payload capacity, and we will basically use it to earn money," Thornton said. "That's really how the company works."
When Thornton describes the company's visionary business model and includes the part about landing on the Moon as a practical part of the scenario, it does not mean that they take that difficult feat for granted. In fact, the company has invested considerable energy and resources in the development of its own technologies that they believe will make these landings successful.
The company developed a ground-based navigation system (TRN) that uses a combination of stereo cameras and a laser or LIDAR sensor, along with software that includes detailed images of maps of the possible landing site.
"It works very similar to when you go hiking and you look at a hiking map and you see there is a mountain there and a stream there and a lake there, so I'm here in relation to those characteristics," Thornton said. The TRN system was tested three years ago on the rocket-powered reorbent suborbital launch vehicle Masten Space Systems, Xombie, guiding the vessel to a safe landing. The company believes that its TRN landing system is the solution with the highest performance, lowest cost and lowest mass to achieve a precision landing on the Moon.
"It's a technology that allows navigation without GPS," said Thornton. "So if you're ever in a place where you're denied GPS, blocked by GPS or GPS-coded or you just need a backup system, it's a very good tool for that."
The first missions of Astrobotic landers to last a lunar day, or 14 Earth days. The first Peregrine mission and possibly the next two or three missions will land approximately two Earth days after the local lunar sunrise. This is to ensure that shadows are appropriate. If they attempt to land too soon after local dawn, the shadows on the ground will be too steep and visually difficult to calibrate the TRN landing system. After landing, the spacecraft will operate on the surface while it has sunlight to keep the solar panels alive. When the landing site passes into the 14-day moon night and temperatures drop to -170 C (-274 F), no one knows if the spacecraft's operability will survive the cold.
"For future missions, we intend to overcome that cold," Thornton said. "We have a battery that we believe can survive the liquid nitrogen cold of the lunar night." You can download it and upload it again and it has the same load as before. "
The battery is only part of the challenge, admits Thornton In the intense cold of the moon night, not only the battery needs to survive, but also the instruments and another hardware – a blown solder joint could mean the end of a piece of equipment, and transporting a radioisotope heating unit on board, as did the Russian moon Lunokhod and Chinese Jade Rabbitt, is out of the question for a small Astrobotic believes they will eventually overcome the lunar night's thermal challenges.
"If we can do that, then the business changes a little," Thornton said. "Our first commercial models are the sale of kilograms. In the future, if we are able to survive longer on the Moon, then we can change our business model to sell watts and sell parts. We can become the local infrastructure on the Moon and support the payloads for longer periods. Then, we become part of the infrastructure at that point. "
Thornton's lunar visions for the future may not be as far away as they seemed a year or two ago, or even a few months ago. President Trump's 2019 NASA outlined a new emphasis on getting spacecraft, and eventually astronauts, to return to the Moon.The proposal described sending a propulsion and power module in orbit around the Moon to serve as the beginning of the construction of a Lunar Orbital Platform, formerly known as the Deep Space Entrance Door According to the proposal, the power and propulsion module would be sent to the Moon in 2022. Of greater relevance to Astrobotic, the plan foresees the use of lunar modules commercially developed to transport experiments, hardware and eventually astronauts, roundtrip from the station to the surface of the Moon at the end of the 2020.
That plan seems to be underway. On March 8, NASA announced its intention to request a series of robotic landers and rockets to meet the service requirements and delivery of lunar cargo. The agency said it will launch a draft request for proposals this spring to start commercial lunar cargo service contracts for delivery to the surface of the Moon by 2019.
"Those proposals are very well aligned with what we've been doing for the last ten years, "Bhaskaran said. "Everything we've been doing points to that."
The company plans to push its Griffin landing module forward as a middle class lander for the NASA call. Between the new emphasis of NASA and the existing private interest in the capabilities of the company, Astrobotic could be very busy very soon.
"What we've seen that is very interesting in the payload market is that at the beginning there were only a handful of groups that were interested," Thornton said. "We now have more than 140 payloads in our sales portfolio that are interested in sending loads to the surface of the Moon, these are active conversations we are having with people, so the demand grows quite quickly."
So is the interest of other space agencies in reaching the Moon. In recent years, the space agencies of Russia, China, Europe, Japan and India have announced plans for scientific missions that orbit and / or land on the Moon.
"For us it is important to be an integral part of that direction that many space agencies are going," Bhaskaran said. "We need to be that high-cost, low-cost delivery service so that scientists can do their science quickly and technologies can be demonstrated quickly." Ultimately, that path leads to human exploration and occupation. technologies for the future human presence on the Moon, so we are well positioned to do that, and to be at the forefront of that. "
After years in which a kind of Mars-centric approach seemed to occupy a lot of energy in NASA and a lot of media attention In general, a silent impulse or relative consensus seems to be building that the Luna is the natural next step to obtain the infrastructure, knowledge and experience necessary to explore more deeply in space. If this way of thinking is maintained, Astrobotic is exactly in the right place at the right time.
"In my mind, the Moon is our closest neighbor, and it will always be the first step out from Earth," Thornton said. "It's the natural point where we're going to learn to live off the earth and use the resources of another planetary body, we're going to learn how to have astronauts in another body of planets in our solar system, in the long term, it can become a source We need to learn how to camp in our own backyard before making 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 the birthplace of Neil Armstrong's Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his experience in journalism and public relations are best suited for his focus on research and development at NASA's Glenn Research Center and its testing facility at Plum Brook Station, both in the northeast of Ohio. Cole contacted SpaceFlight Insider and requested to join SFI as the first member of the "Glenn Team" of the organization.