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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Astrobotic Shoots For The Moon Economically

February 19th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

As a kid growing up, I was interested in many things, but was especially fascinated by the U.S. space program that went from several early failed attempts to the ultimate triumph of landing men on the moon in 1969 with Apollo 11. Humans went back a few more times during the next few years, but the past 40 or so years has been Moon and planetary exploration by satellites, robots, and rovers. The discoveries made during these explorations have been amazing, but largely cost prohibitive. That is, until now.

Last week at SolidWorks World 2015 we saw and heard an excellent presentation given during Day 2’s General Session by John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic Technology.

The focus of his company and presentation was launching, landing, and deploying payloads on the Moon at an affordable cost.

Founded in 2008 and headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA, Astrobotic Technology Inc. is a space logistics company that is positioning itself to deliver payloads to the Moon for companies, governments, universities, non-profits and individuals. Astrobotic’s spacecraft accommodates multiple customers on a single flight, offering flexibility at a relatively low price (~$500 K/lb or $1.2 M/kg) to the lunar surface. Astrobotic is also accepting small mementos for inclusion on its first mission to the Moon – MoonMail, will send personal keepsakes to a lunar destination for between $460 and $1,660 per package.

Astrobotic is a NASA contractor, and is also an official partner with NASA on the Lunar CATALYST program. With its partner, Carnegie Mellon University, Astrobotic is pursuing the Google Lunar XPRIZE and is scheduled to launch the first mission in 2016, although the company will not commit to a specific date.

Go to the 1:20 mark to check out the stage presentation of John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotics at SolidWorks World 2015.

Day 2: SOLIDWORKS World 2015 General Session Highlights

Later that day I sat down with Mr. Thornton for a few minutes of one on one time. With all that he has accomplished, he is very approachable and forthcoming about his company’s exciting venture.

He said that he wants to make moon access routine and the initial catalyst for Astrobotic was Google Lunar XPRIZE. Among many partners, the lift vehicle is the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Lunar ride-share missions include translunar injection, lunar orbit, lunar surface, and rover.

Last month Astrobotic captured a third Milestone Prize in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition. In order to secure the prize, Astrobotic successfully demonstrated key elements of the landing technology capable of soft landing a spacecraft on the Moon. The Landing Milestone prize includes a cash award of $1 million.

A key component to Astrobotic’s third milestone win is the successful demonstration of the first commercially developed, visually guided lunar landing system. The software processes real-time pictures of the surface of the Moon and compares them to onboard maps to determine the lander’s exact location; similar to how GPS works on Earth. On approach to the intended landing site, the system scans the ground to detect and avoid obstacles, ensuring a safe touchdown.

Astrobotic has also advanced and demonstrated key components of the lander’s propulsion system. Most spacecraft operations beyond low earth orbit in the past 20 years have used hydrazine propellant, which is highly toxic and difficult to test on Earth. Astrobotic’s use of green propellant enables safe testing on Earth, increasing reliability for the 2016 mission.

Both the landing software and propellant technologies underwent numerous tests throughout 2014 at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

“The technology developed for the landing milestone sets Astrobotic apart from all other teams.” said John Thornton, CEO. “This software strengthens the mission’s precision and safety, two major components necessary for a successful mission.”

This is the third milestone win for Astrobotic. In December 2014, Astrobotic announced that in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, it had secured two milestone wins, one for imaging technology, and additionally for the mobility capabilities of the Rover. With wins in all three categories, Astrobotic has secured prize money totaling $1,750,000. The prize money will further fund lander and rover development.

How Astrobotic is Revolutionizing the Moon

The privately-funded teams come from all over the world and have been working since 2007 to build a robot that’s capable of landing safely on the Moon, transmitting high definition footage of its surroundings back to Earth from the Moon’s surface, and traveling 500 meters from its landing point. The team that does this successfully stands to win $20 million from Google, the primary sponsor of this XPRIZE.

The Astrobotic payload to the moon consists of the Griffin lander that delivers the rover and other payloads to the lunar surface with 100m landing precision and avoids steep slopes and other potential hazards autonomously. The Rover will traverse the lunar terrain and capture and transmit high-definition imagery.

Launched from Cape Canaveral Astrobotic Technology’s SKYLIGHT mission will land and rove at a suspected skylight in the Moon’s Lacus Mortis (“Lake of the Dead”) region to win the Google Lunar

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will propel the Griffin lander into low Earth orbit. After a five day cislunar cruise, the Griffin lander will touch down on the edge of the pit and explore by circumnavigating the perimeter of the pit, modeling its walls, and transmitting high-definition video back to Earth. The mission is to explore a pit that is suspected to be a skylight (entrance to a lunar cave). The protective caves are thought to have been formed either as lava tubes or meteorite impact melts.

Sub-surface caverns ultimately may be the best place for human habitation on the Moon and to find life on Mars. They can provide a window into a planet’s history of geology, climate, and biology. Skylights provide access to sub-surface voids. They have been conclusively shown to exist on Mars and the Moon and some evidence points to existence throughout the solar system.

Robotic precursor missions will map and characterize skylights and sub-surface caverns for future human missions and they can gather scientific data at sites where humans may never go. Planetary caves provide a challenging mission environment. Unlike surface explorers, robots in caves cannot get power from the sun, nor can they use the sun’s light to illuminate the terrain for photography. Emerging technologies, such as magneto-inductive radars, can provide a low bandwidth data link into a cave, but this data link is nowhere near enough for teleoperation, so cave exploring robots must operate with a high degree of autonomy. Accessing lava tube caves through skylights presents a difficult mobility challenge, including both vertical descent and navigation of rubble piles.

Over time, Thornton wants to involve dozens of countries, hundreds of companies, and thousands of people in the quest to (possibly) make the Moon the next “continent.”

The Astrobotic technologies, planned missions, are certainly ambitious, but with the successes the company has enjoyed thus far, future success is by no means guaranteed, but the odds look increasingly good. Mr. Thornton and his crew are poised to smartly and economically shoot the moon for a wide spectrum of customers and interesting purposes. Astrobotic may just spur the next wave of great interest in space exploration, something we haven’t seen in over a generation.

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