CMU firm advances in moon rover contest
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In the international race to become the first private venture to put a robotic rover on the moon, Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company Astrobotic Technology Inc. just got a big boost.
NASA has named Astrobotic one of six American companies eligible for up to $10.1 million in grant money if it successfully lands what it has dubbed Red Rover on the moon and can send back valuable data about its mission and how its novel technology has worked.
All six companies -- and at least three of five other companies that applied for the grant but did not get it -- are also competing in the Google-sponsored Lunar X PRIZE that could award up to $30 million to the first team to get its rover on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.
Winning the grant is more important than just getting some of NASA's money.
"This is concrete proof that NASA will buy data from this mission," Astrobotic's president David Gump said. "We'll take that and use it to get more investment."
NASA's grants -- while relatively small compared to the $100-million-plus costs of the various ventures' budgets -- act as perhaps the best sign to the business community yet that the technology being developed for the competition is worth investing in, said William Pomerantz, senior director for space prizes at the X PRIZE Foundation, which runs the competition for Google.
"It sends exactly the right signals, not only to the teams, but to the investment community," Mr. Pomerantz said. Investors "were waiting for a clear signal that NASA was interested in what our teams were doing."
Google, which sponsored a $10 million contest that led to a manned craft to fly onto the edge of space in 2004, announced the competition in 2007 as one of "the grand challenges of our time that we can use to move people forward."
The NASA grant announcement also comes with good timing.
When it first announced the competition in September 2007, Google set Dec. 31, 2012, as the cut-off date to win the maximum $30 million prize, with less money won if the recipient launched and succeeded in its mission on the moon after that date.
But "the economy tanked right after we made our announcement," Mr. Pomerantz said, and the teams have had a hard time raising funds. Lunar X is in the process of moving its deadline date back a year, to Dec. 31, 2013.
Astrobotic has declared that it would launch by April 2013, "and we think we're in the lead with that," Mr. Gump said.
But at least one other team -- Synergy Moon of California -- said it will go earlier.
Synergy Moon spokeswoman Randa Milliron said her company will launch by December 2012. The team had applied for the NASA grant, too, but Ms. Milliron said it was no great loss to not get it.
"Everybody likes money and the prestige attached to it," she said. "So in the public eye it's probably good to be attached to NASA. But it's no guarantee of success."
Carnegie Mellon was one of the first to announce the formation of a team that came to include Astrobotic, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Aerojet, Scaled Composites, International Rectifier, Harmonic Drive LLC, and Caterpillar Inc.
There are 22 teams -- 10 of them based in the United States -- competing for the Lunar X PRIZE competition. A 23rd team could be added soon, with several more added before registration ends at the end of the year, Mr. Pomerantz said.
Mr. Gump said Astrobotic will need $70 million to $100 million to get its Red Rover launched -- via a Falcon 9 rocket -- and operating on the moon, and it still needs $5 million to $25 million of new investment to make it possible.
He expects two-thirds of the cost to come from corporate sponsors and customers, who could take advantage of an additional 220 pounds of payload capacity to launch other scientific equipment.
The other third of the cost should come from investors, he said.
But because only $1.1 million of the NASA grant could be won before the project's launch -- the rest is based on results once the rover is up and running on the moon -- the bulk of the grant won't help pay for the project, Mr. Gump said, but will help with bills or profit later.
Robert Kelso, commercial lunar programs manager for NASA, said the space agency was eager to weigh in on the Lunar X competition, though the grant was open to anyone.
"NASA does see value in this and we're willing to put up millions of dollars to support it," he said.
All six teams that were chosen for the grant by NASA will compete at each of four stages in the race to get on the moon, and provide data from each, which NASA will then judge which is most valuable for its ongoing research.
Among the data that NASA will pay the teams for is how to land at a precise location, how to avoid obstacles like boulders and craters and how the robot rover survives the lunar night.
Though some worried that this was NASA's way of picking who it thought would be winners and losers in the Lunar X competition, Mr. Kelso said that wasn't the goal for one basic reason.
"Who's to say one or the other won't be successful?" he said. "We're just enjoying the competition and will sit back and see what happens."
First Published October 20, 2010 12:00 am