Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic signs Mexican Space Agency for trip to the moon
June 10, 2015 10:13 PM
Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, stands in front of the company's Griffin Lander at their headquarters in the Strip District.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Astrobotic, the Strip District-based lunar logistics company, has signed up as a payload customer the first of what it hopes will be many future international space agency clients.
After several months of negotiation, the Mexican Space Agency –- that country’s version of NASA — signed a deal to have Astrobotic take an undetermined payload to the moon, said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton.
“They want to be the first Latin American country to land on the moon and operate a payload,” Mr. Thornton said. “And with us they can do it for a fraction of the cost” compared to trying to do it alone.
Signing Mexico up as a customer also moves Astrobotic one step closer to having enough paying customers to win it the now-8-year-old Google Lunar XPrize it has been pursuing since it was created.
Astrobotic was founded in 2007 to be the private partner with Carnegie Mellon University to be a competitor in for the XPrize. That competition will award $20 million to the first private, non-governmental entity to land a robotic rover on the moon, drive it 500 meters (about one-third of a mile) and beam back high definition pictures of it all.
Astrobotic and CMU are still pursuing that prize and hope they can get enough private payload customers in the next year to pay to lease a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX and launch some time in 2016. Astrobotic is designing the lunar lander for the trip, and CMU is designing the robotic rover and hopes the competitive rocket launch will just be the first of many deliveries it makes on additional rockets in the future.
Recently Astrobotic and CMU announced that one of its XPrize competitors, HAKUTO of Japan, had signed on to be part of its payload – and Mr. Thornton said the company is still negotiating to bring on four or more other competitors.
If more competitors sign on for the payload, it would potentially set up a “NASCAR on the moon” race, that Mr. Thornton envisions as a way to both pay for his payload, bring attention to the XPrize race and foster the idea that Astrobotic could truly be “Fed-Ex to the moon.”
In addition, Astrobotic has signed on two private companies for payloads, has a contract with NASA to carry additional payload, and has created the MoonMail option for regular people to send small items or packages to the moon.
Adding the Mexican space agency — known as AEM for its Spanish language name “Agencia Espacial Mexicana” — opens up another potentially rich vein of customers that could be even more important to the future of the company and space delivery, he said.
“Many people know the major super powers in space – the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India – but most people don’t know that there are another 50 space agencies out there,” he said.
And Astrobotic has contacted many of them about leasing space on its lander and rover.
“They are prime targets for flying to the moon,” he said.
With space aspirations, but typically limited funding, the smaller 50 space agencies of the world “fit our sweet spot for customers,” he said.
That is because Astrobotic hopes to be the “middle man” that connects deliveries with a rocket, a lander and a rover, if need be, and can do it more cheaply than one of the space powers.
Representatives from AEM could not be reached today, but, Astrobotic said that the space agency will ask Mexican scientists this summer to propose ideas for what type of payload or science projects should go to the moon, and pick the winner sometime this fall.
“It’s a win-win for them” by using Astrobotic, said Dan Hendrickson, the company’s director of business development.
Instead of spending more time raising funds to pay a super power to help them “they can focus on payload and becoming a world leader in a specific science or payload,” he said.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579
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