The Lunar XPRIZE is a competition sponsored by Google, offering some serious cash incentives to the first few teams to land a rover safely on the Moon, explore a bit and then send some data back to Earth. XPRIZE was set up in the interests of humanity (read more about its ethos here) and few dozen serious contenders have been signed up. These aren’t amateur makers or pre-grad college students but teams of talented and experienced scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs with the business acumen and resources that gives them a real shot at putting spacecraft on the Moon.
The money at stake seems tasty enough: $20 million to the grand prize winner who successfully makes the next lunar landing. $5 million for the next team, $4 million in secondary objectives that include surviving a bitterly cold lunar night and travelling more than 5 kilometres (3.1 miles), plus $1 million to the team that ‘promotes greatest diversity in the field of space exploration’.
But how can a private endeavour achieve what space agencies haven’t done for 40 years? Space robotics company Astrobotic is one of the 22 competitors still vying for the Lunar XPRIZE with its Red Rover robot: president John Thornton tells us how winning the competition is just the start.
Spaceanswers: Did the Good Lunar X competition simply fit the bill, or did it inspire you to create something different?
John Thornton: XPRIZE for Astrobotic was a catalyst. It’s a means, a direction to start. We’re all about affordable space robotics and bringing cutting-edge robotics to space. So when XPRIZE was announced and things got going, it just made sense to launch the company and jump into the race.
“Right now we’re actively selling payloads aboard the mission, you can buy a pound of payload for $550k”
Our approach to this is to create a lunar delivery service capable of bringing payloads to the moon at prices that the world has never seen. So right now we’re actively selling payloads aboard the mission, you can buy a pound of payload for $550k and it all scales. We’ve got quite a few customers that we’re going to be flying with, everything from space agencies to startup companies looking at new ways of making money on the moon, to sponsors, to commercial outfits who want to prove technologies – we’ve got all sorts who want to go with us.
In terms of just delivery cost, that’s one of the big differentiators of our company versus NASA doing it themselves. NASA did a study and they figured out that it was costing them $10 million per pound to deliver the payload they need to the moon. The big change there is that we’re focusing on the cost efficiency, whereas NASA is usually trying to push the boundaries of technology, going to the new frontier. We’re about creating a commercial service that’s available to the world. That enables a different paradigm to develop under and the kind of pricing that we can offer right now.
Spaceanswers: The competition offers scope for a number of robotic designs within its rules – what made you decide on the Red Rover?
John Thornton: Our approach to the XPRIZE mission was to go full-scale. There are a bunch of teams that have chosen to go smaller scale, where it’s a secondary or an add-on payload to another vehicle and we’re actually partnering with some of those guys. But our approach is to get the entirety of a launch vehicle – we have a contract for a Falcon 9 launch vehicle that goes in October 2015 – and because we’ve got the entire launch vehicle, we can go large-scale. So we throw 2,500 kg at the Moon, we land about 850 kg on the Moon, and we have 270 kg available for a 3rd party payload. So anyone in the world can come with us on this first amazing trip.
Spaceanswers: Assuming all goes well, how long do you hope Red Rover will last, realistically?
John Thornton: So our intended landing site is called Lacus Mortis – the Lake of Death. It’s a pit on the Moon otherwise known as a skylight… think of it as a sinkhole. It’s 100m across and 100m deep and when you get down to it, it’s an entryway to a lunar cave network because there’s lava tubes underneath the surface. That’s our first location and that’s a little bit northern latitude.
“Temperatures get down to that of liquid nitrogen, -210 C (-346 F), which is challenging for a lunar rover to survive”
Typically what happens is there’s a 28-day lunar cycle, 14 days of light, 14 days of dark and our rover will definitely survive one Moon day-light period, which after the landing is about 12 days. That’s the guarantee: we’re designing this system to last a lunar night, the challenge there is that the temperatures get down to that of liquid nitrogen, -210 C (-346 F), which is challenging for a lunar rover to survive. But we are designing for that, we’re not promising anyone that we can do that, but that is our intention. We’re going to go for the distance prize, which is the 5km prize and the surviving the night bonus.
Spaceanswers: What do you hope to achieve? What’s the ideal outcome?
John Thornton: XPRIZE is just the base-line. So our first mission will win the XPRIZE and collect a NASA contract called ILBD, which is a $9.5 million contract for data related to the Moon landing. It will also carry, probably at least a dozen other payloads with it. So there will be objectives of those payloads that will become part of that mission as well. Astrobotic in the long term is about lunar payload delivery. That’s our first goal in space. Then from a big picture standpoint we’re a space robotics company, we’re going to make robotics in space for a long time to come and lunar delivery is our first go in the industry.