Company with local roots aims for moon
Apr 05, 2012 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Astrobotic Technology has altered its October 2015 mission to the moon in dramatic fashion.
It's headed to the lunar north pole to prospect for natural resources, including water and methane, and abandoning plans to land near the equator with a primary goal of winning the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.
The new goal is to advance science by confirming the presence of resources necessary for colonization of the moon.
The space robotics company, which holds six NASA contracts to develop robotic equipment for moon missions, changed its strategy to take full scientific advantage of landing its first robot on the moon.
NASA, the European Space Agency, Japan, India and China all completed recent satellite orbits of the moon that indicated the presence of water and other resources there, but without confirmation.
Astrobotic's Polaris robot, which is a lunar rover, also will be able to dig and drill for resources, then analyze and report its findings to Earth. Its landing would represent a major scientific step forward in moon exploration.
"If we get on the ground in the north pole and confirm the presence of resources, that would be the basis for a thriving lunar economy where we could create spacecraft fuel on the moon," said David Gump, Astrobotic president.
Twenty-six teams have joined the competition for the X Prize, which will go to the first private company to land on the moon and fulfill a series of tasks. Mr. Gump said Astrobotic is the first to announce that it has reserved a launch vehicle -- a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX -- to carry its robot and lander to the moon.
Led by noted Carnegie Mellon University roboticist William "Red" Whittaker, the company now is redesigning its Polaris robot to transform it into a lunar prospector. Because the weight the rocket can carry is set, any additional weight added to the robot must be subtracted from the lander, Mr. Gump said.
Originally, Astrobotic planned to land a robot near the moon's equator, which would travel across the lunar surface and send video back to Earth. The former plan also included a trip near the Apollo 11 landing site, where the first humans stepped on the lunar surface, and provide fresh video of the famous spot.
"The previous robot was designed to be a scout carrying cameras and making long-distance traverses," Mr. Gump said.
Astrobotic also plans to haul payload from space agencies and scientific institutions to the moon at a cost of $820,000 a pound.
Moon colonization largely depends on what natural resources exist there, initially at its poles. Water, split into hydrogen and oxygen, would help sustain human life while providing fuel for rockets to return to Earth or head deeper into the solar system, Mr. Gump said.
At the north pole, the robot will operate for 10 to 12 days of constant sunlight, then hibernate during the equal period of polar nighttime.
Mr. Gump said Astrobotic intends to land within 100 yards of its designated target.
David Templeton: email@example.com or 412-263-1578.
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