More than 50 years after the Apollo mission landed the last American spacecraft on the surface of the moon, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is attempting to repeat the same feat with one big difference — becoming the first commercial space company to land on the moon.
“It took a while for the technology to advance to the point where we could routinely, routinely and regularly get to the surface of the moon,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said. “The stars have aligned with the moon, if you will.
Thornton and his team are making their first bet on the Peregrine lunar lander, a small-class spacecraft developed at Astrobotic’s 47,000-square-foot facility. Peregrine, equipped with electronics, propulsion and communications systems, will be loaded aboard the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, scheduled for launch later this year.
A $470 billion industry
A successful landing would mark a major milestone in the private space race, which has spawned a $470 billion industry worldwide, and boost the more audacious goal of human life on the moon.
“To crack the moon nut, we need the infrastructure and resources to get going,” Thornton said. “The more we can remove our dependence on Earth’s resources and travel into space, the more we become true space explorers and eventually space settlers.”
While the early Apollo missions were managed by government agencies such as NASA, the rapid growth of private space companies led to an increase in new missions originating from private-public partnerships focused on scientific research and space exploration. Elon Musk’s Space X alone operated eight manned space flights to the International Space Station in cooperation with NASA.
However, commercial success on the moon remained elusive. Japan’s ispace ( 9348.T ) attempt to land the first commercial lander on the lunar surface failed earlier this year when its Hakuto-R lunar lander miscalculated its altitude and crashed.
Astrobotic has already secured several contracts with NASA worth roughly $450 million. After the launch of the Peregrine lander, Griffin’s larger lander will take NASA’s Viper Rover to the moon’s south pole next year to search for water in the darkest corner of the planet.
“You have to build a spacecraft that can fly for a month or more straight through space, get to the moon, get into lunar orbit, and then come down for a soft landing on the surface,” Thornton said. “It’s extremely difficult to bring all those series of successes together in a single spacecraft that can then provide a business model.”
“Hotels on the Moon”
The goal of ensuring a long-term human presence on the moon has gained momentum in recent weeks.
Last month, India became the first country to land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole, an area scientists believe has frozen water reserves.
Thornton compared any water on the moon to oil on Earth — a resource so valuable that it will likely expand lunar exploration. And the potential for future space exploration, including missions to Mars, depends heavily on success on the moon, Thornton said.
“As the cost comes down, as we’re able to use more space resources, there could be a point where the cost becomes affordable enough that you could potentially (see the development of) the very first hotels on the moon,” Thornton said. “(The lunar surface) could be how we refuel our spacecraft to get to Mars and other deep space destinations. It all starts right here on our closest neighbor, the Moon.
At Astrobotic’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, this business model is front and center, with the words “making space available to the world” emblazoned on the wall.
While the company’s immediate focus is on delivering cargo to the moon, it’s also building lunar infrastructure in anticipation that astronauts and space tourists will eventually spend extended periods of time there.
For example, its wireless charger is designed to withstand lunar “dust storms” to provide rovers and landers with a direct power source. To power these chargers, Astrobotic is also building a portable power grid that provides solar power.
The Lunagrid loaded on the rover will act as a mini gas station that generates and distributes power. This is especially important during the lunar night, which lasts 14 days on Earth.
“If you run out of power on the moon, it’s game over,” said Jay Eckard, project leader. “You can’t go in there and plug it in or carry extra batteries.
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Akiko Fujita is a Yahoo Finance anchor and reporter. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita.
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