Astrobotic Technology Inc. is a Pittsburgh based company that delivers affordable space robotic products, services, and missions for emerging commercial space markets. Astrobotic was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in 2008.
Astrobotic is building robotic technologies and spacecraft that will move and operate space payloads with market-disruptive reduction of cost and mission development time. This will enable new markets such as satellite servicing, off-Earth mining, space tourism beyond Low Earth Orbit, and expanded NASA exploration and science. Within its sweet spot of navigation, mobility, and robotics, Astrobotic achieves higher performance than any competitor (government or private) at far lower cost.
Astrobotic’s 2015 inaugural mission, ‘Icebreaker’, will explore for methane, ammonia, and water at the Moon’s north pole and claim the Google Lunar X Prize. The Icebreaker Expedition investigates data from orbital spacecraft and the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) showing the Moon to be potentially rich with volatile elements, especially around the poles. This discovery has ignited visions of life support, propellant production, and resource utilization beyond planet Earth. The 2015 Icebreaker Expedition will employ a mobile prospector to determine the constituency, concentration, and distribution of volatiles. Icebreaker delivers:
- Data needed to exploit off-planet resources;
- Dramatically lower costs than traditional missions;
- Precision landing, key to building the lunar frontier; and
- High public visibility via sponsorships and media collaborations
Launch is by SpaceX Falcon 9, which is under agreement. After achieving low Earth orbit, the Falcon 9 second stage re-ignites for trans-lunar injection (TLI) to propel Astrobotic’s spacecraft into a 4.5-day cruise to the moon.
Icebreaker consists of two spacecraft, a lander and the Polaris rover; lander and rover exist as a single spacecraft until touchdown on the lunar surface. Polaris is a robotic rover with a lunar drill, oven, and instruments for analyzing volatiles that will be delivered to the Moon's surface on Astrobotic’s lunar lander. The lander guides the spacecraft into lunar orbit and controls descent to the surface.
The lander delivers 262 kg of payload to any destination on the Moon to support robotic lunar missions like skylight exploration, sample return, regional prospecting, and polar volatile characterization. Rovers and payloads vary for differing missions, but the lander is a common platform across missions. (For Icebreaker, the lander delivers the integrated Polaris rover and drill and analysis payload.) Details like size of solar arrays, orientation of high-gain antennas, and sizing of thermal radiators differ with destination and purpose, but structure, propulsion, power, avionics, communications and guidance, navigation and control (GNC) are invariant.
Polaris prospects for water at the lunar poles. Polaris has vertical solar panels to generate 250W of power and two radiator panels to reject excess heat. Stereo cameras and laser are used to guide Polaris and generate 3-D video and models of the lunar surface. The robot communicates directly with Earth using a pointed S-band antenna to receive commands and send video and data. Polaris carries up to 80kg of payload, such as a drill to take core samples and science instruments to identify water content. Polaris is capable of driving and avoiding obstacles autonomously, including traverses into dark regions in the lunar pole’s long shadows. Polaris’ suspension maintains four-wheel ground contact over sloped and rocky lunar terrain without the use of springs. Surface operations are carefully preplanned to maintain unobstructed views of the sun for power and the earth for communication.
The robot will explore for ten days until the 14-day cryogenic lunar night begins, then hibernate, recover at sunrise, and continue to explore. The lander and rover are both built to tolerate this cryogenic cold.
Future missions include exploration of skylights, holes leading to caves beneath the lunar surface, and additional missions to prospect, characterize, and exploit resources. Amidst the burgeoning commercial space industry, Astrobotic is pioneering affordable planetary access that promises to spark a new era of exploration, science, tourism, resource utilization, and mining.