Astrobotic: A Space Robotics Company Eyeing the Xprize
Man first set foot on the moon 46 years ago and since then, it doesn’t seem like we’ve done a whole lot to explore a fascinating destination that’s just 3 days away. Private space travel is becoming the next hot trend in VC investing with private space exploration companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab already selling payload space on rocket launches into space. With Elon Musk driving SpaceX to be a company that “enables people to live on other planets”, it won’t be long now before we start seeing expeditions to the moon and Mars.
One problem with exploring Mars is that it takes +160 to +300 days to get there. This increased distance means increased costs making any form of commercial exploitation difficult. The moon, however, is a mere 3 days away. For this reason, back in 2007 Google announced the “Lunar Xprize” which is the following contest:
$20 million to land a privately funded rover on the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high definition video and images. $5 million to a second team that does the same thing. $5 million in bonus prizes for feats such as surviving the lunar night, visiting an Apollo landing site, finding water or demonstrating diversity.
The catch here is that at least one team must announce a verified launch contract by December 31, 2015, or the prize will expire without a winner. With Moon Express having just announced their launch contract with Rocket Lab a few days ago, the competition could now be extended until the end of 2017 pending verification from Google. So which team is likely to win this new space race? The front runner right now looks like a company called Astrobotic.
Astrobotic was established in 2007 as a spin-off from the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute. The Company is pioneering affordable planetary access by selling space on their missions similar to Rocket Lab. Their primary objective is to win the Google Xprize with their “Griffin Lander“. The Griffin has a mass of more than half a metric ton and is about the size of a small SUV. It will release a rover about the size of a go-cart. The team’s rover will explore a lunar skylight thought to be an entrance to a subsurface cave network which could provide habitat for future manned missions.
Astrobotic’s first mission is expected to bank up to $24 million in Google’s Lunar X PRIZE, Florida’s $2 million launch bonus, and NASA’s $10 million landing contract while delivering 240 pounds of payload for space agencies and corporate marketers. At a cost of $545,000 per pound, that payload represents an additional $130.8 million in revenues. Earlier this year, Google announced a series of milestone prizes for the Xprize with Astrobotic capturing all 3 prizes.
Astrobotic announced a contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2011 to provide the rocket needed to make the 3-day journey to the moon after which they will use the Griffin Lander to place their 240 lb payload on the surface of the moon. Even one of their competitors for the Xprize, Hakuto, has bought space on their first launch to land a small rover which has a mass of just under 5 pounds.
Want to drop something on the moon’s surface for the first return to the moon since 1976? You can book space now on the Astrobotic flight manifest at a cost of about $34,285 per ounce, but for those who just want to send up something sentimental like Fido’s paw print, there’s another option called Moonmail. The smallest container size you can buy (0.5″ X 0.125″) will set you back $460. Here are some of the items they suggest you can
litter decorate the moon’s surface with:
Astrobotic is setting up an interesting business model where their own space exploration endeavors are being funded by selling services that appeal to government/private exploration, corporate marketing, and even retail consumers. Should Astrobotic actually win the Xprize, the publicity they generate as a result may far outweigh the “token” prize money they stand to gain from winning the Xprize. The exploration of the moon may prove to be a lucrative business after all.
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