Astrobotic Technology wins NASA data contract

Byron SpiceMonday, October 18, 2010

Carnegie Mellon University spin-off Astrobotic Technology was awarded a $10 million contract through NASA's Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program for data to be gathered before and during the company's April 2013 robotic expedition to the Moon.

Carnegie Mellon is a key member in the alliance backing Astrobotic's effort to win the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize by landing and operating a robot on the Moon. The alliance also includes Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Aerojet, Scaled Composites, International Rectifier, Harmonic Drive LLC and Caterpillar Inc.

The mission will explore the lunar surface near an Apollo site with a "social" robot able to Tweet and update its Facebook account as it chats with fans on Earth. The robot's high-definition cameras will show the Moon in 3D as it is directed by amateur drivers over the Web and at science centers.

"This private-sector Moon expedition combines small and large companies, and taps into the intellectual capital of the world's leading computer science and robotics university," said Dr. William "Red" Whittaker, founder of Astrobotic Technology and the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon. "Together we'll create a lunar exploration mission at a breakthrough cost that enables public participation from around the world."

NASA will pay Astrobotic for data about how to land at a precise location, which hasn't been done by previous Mars and Moon robots, as well as how to avoid last-minute obstacles like boulders and small craters unseen from orbit. The NASA contract also pays for information about how the Astrobotic robot survives the lunar night- two weeks of deep freeze as cold as liquid nitrogen.
Each accomplishment is worth $500,000 to $2.5 million. Astrobotic can collect up to $1.1 million with data delivered prior to launch, and the remainder after its spacecraft lands.

Astrobotic plans to send its spacecraft to a lunar trajectory via a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, a "new space" company that won a $1.6 billion NASA assignment to bring cargo to the International Space Station. The expedition has 220 pounds of payload capacity available for customers at universities, space agencies, and corporate sponsors.

A unique aspect of the expedition is the inclusion of interdisciplinary arts projects created by students and faculty based in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts.

Carnegie Mellon University backs the project with the experience of its Robotics Institute, where several prototype lunar robots have been developed and field tested. The university's expertise includes winning the DARPA Urban Challenge with a Chevy Tahoe that autonomously drove through city traffic, planning its own path, avoiding obstacles and obeying the California traffic code. This sensing and software technology is being applied to a precision landing on the Moon.

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