Profile | John Thornton, Chief Executive, Astrobotic Technology

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Expertise, a by-product from the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon College, is likely one of the main contenders within the Google Lunar X Prize competitors, which pledges $20 million to the primary workforce that lands a privately funded spacecraft on the floor of the Moon by Dec. 31, 2015. The successful entry additionally should traverse not less than 500 meters of lunar panorama and transmit high-definition video again to Earth. Extra funds will probably be awarded for bonus achievements, together with taking footage of historic artifacts and driving 5 kilometers.

However successful is irrelevant, says Astrobotic Chief Government John Thornton. The corporate’s X Prize flight, slated for October 2015 aboard a Area Exploration Applied sciences Falcon 9 rocket, is the primary of three deliberate missions to the lunar floor to offer business companies for a wide range of enterprise, analysis, authorities, academic and advertising and marketing prospects. 

“Our enterprise mannequin doesn’t depend upon successful the prize,” Thornton mentioned. 

Astrobotic is one among two contenders lately chosen as finalists in a trio of supplemental Google Lunar X Prize competitions, with prizes totaling $6 million. The extra awards, dubbed Milestone Prizes, are meant to assist groups display explicit technical achievements previous to launching to the Moon. Three different groups have been chosen to compete in a single or two of the supplemental competitions.

Thornton spoke lately with table4 correspondent Irene Klotz about progress Astrobotic is making towards its flight subsequent 12 months and its plans into the long run.

You latterly accomplished a check flight of your lander’s steering system on a Masten Area Techniques Xombie automobile. When is the following check?

All I can say is it’s going to occur throughout the subsequent two months. We’re contractually obligated to not give particular dates on that. The best way the system works is that we’re flying Masten’s lander — we’re primarily just like the astronaut-in-a-box that’s controlling their lander. We now have the steering system onboard, now we have the cameras and the lasers which can be wanting down on the terrain and in search of hazards, and we’re telling the spacecraft the place a protected touchdown is and the way to get there. 

The place do you propose to land on the Moon? 

Lacus Mortis, which is the “Lake of Demise.” There’s a pit there and it’s the one one identified that has a collapsed wall ramp which you could doubtlessly drive down and doubtlessly get within the cave.

Why go to a cave? 

We see that there’s an enormous potential at these caves and pits for future human use. The one method we’re going to go and do that’s if we go up-close and uncover it and discover it and see what it’s about, see if you may get inside. I believe robots are going to try this first, and it simply is sensible to go there first.

There are some payloads which have curiosity within the caves, and doubtlessly getting in and exploring, however I’ll let these teams discuss that once we make these offers public. 

I’m assuming that’s not close to any of the lunar historic websites, so that you’re bypassing that a part of the X Prize providing?

That’s right.

What do you plan to do in your mobility requirement?

We land on the floor after which we deploy a rover. The rover drives 500 meters, and finally drives 5 kilometers to win the X Prize distance prize, the bonus prize.

You’ve already introduced a number of business prospects that will probably be flying in your first mission. Are you additionally planning to fly different X Prize contenders?

We now have agreements with different groups the place we’ll land on the floor, deploy all of the rovers after which at one level we’ll increase the inexperienced flag and everybody will drive 500 meters as quick as they will. Whoever wins, wins the glory of the prize.

There’s a second prize to the X Prize, and there are additionally some prizes which you could’t win if you happen to solely have simply two groups. There are milestone prizes, for instance, which you could add to the pot, so flying extra groups truly allows all of the groups to achieve success collectively.

So it’s attainable that you just wouldn’t win first prize although you bought everyone there.

Our purpose is to fly payloads to the floor of the Moon, often and constantly into the long run. The primary mission is only a pattern of that. Our enterprise mannequin doesn’t depend upon successful the prize. Bringing different groups with us is an enormous a part of what we’re doing. I truly suppose it’s going to be exponentially extra thrilling each time we add one other workforce, particularly if it’s from one other nation as a result of you then’ve received nations from around the globe which can be watching dwell, real-time from the Moon as the thrill is unfolding.

Are you able to give me a tough concept of the variety of X Prize contenders you suppose may be flying with you?

We are able to’t discuss that publicly, not but not less than. It’s very seemingly that we’ll fly with 4 X Prize groups, together with ours. 

Whom do you think about your closest competitor for the Google Lunar X Prize?

Nicely, you’d most likely have to choose Moon Categorical, as a result of they have been the one different workforce that received picked in all three classes for the $6 million in preflight Milestone Prizes added to the competitors late final 12 months. 

How do you differentiate your self from Moon Categorical? I perceive they’ve some comparable aims so far as a marketing strategy.

Yeah, they’re very comparable. We now have a a lot cheaper price level for payloads. We now have a a lot larger capability. Moon Categorical flies as a secondary payload on a launch automobile, and we fly as a main, so which means we management the schedule, we management the technical necessities to fly, and we are able to present much more flexibility to prospects to fly with us.

You’ve procured a Falcon 9 rocket launch in your first lunar mission. Do you have got a launch date?

We’re planning on October 2015.

Why not any sooner?

Nicely, it takes time to develop the aptitude, develop the expertise and construct the spacecraft. There’s much more stuff to be achieved between at times. Our rover will probably be about 25 kilograms, and a full payload could be about 270 kilograms of mass. We definitely don’t need to fill that to fly the primary mission.

Did you have a look at every other launchers or is the pricing on the Falcon 9 the one one which was within the ballpark of this preliminary mission?

The Falcon 9 does have an incredible pricing construction and so they have been additionally providing a reduction to X Prize groups — a ten % low cost. Their worth and efficiency are proper for our mission and we’re very proud of SpaceX. The Falcon 9 higher stage kicks us into translunar injection. From there, our spacecraft takes over. 

What are you utilizing for a propulsion system? 

We’re in remaining discussions with companions now. We haven’t but made that public. 

The place will you be controlling the spacecraft from?

We’ll have a mission management heart in Florida — the mission will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Pressure Station — after which we’ll hand off to Pittsburgh and can do missions operations from there.

How does this endeavor examine with what Astrobotic has achieved beforehand?

That is by far essentially the most bold mission we’ve achieved. Earlier than this, we’ve had 15 NASA contracts of assorted expertise developments, however nothing to this scale and clearly nothing to the Moon. That is definitely an enormous, thrilling step for us. 

What number of staff do you have got now?

We’re at 14 and hiring 5 extra. 

What different missions are you planning?

The primary one goes in 2015. The second is in 2018, and it lands on the pole of the Moon and drills for water. We’re in scorching competitors for NASA payload that wishes to fly and land there, the Useful resource Prospector [formerly RESOLVE]. A 3rd mission would go in 2020. 

Why did you embark on lunar flight and help companies as a enterprise enterprise?

We acknowledge that there’s a big, unserved marketplace for small payloads that need to fly. These are payloads that may’t afford their very own launch autos, they will’t afford to construct their very own lander or spacecraft, however they nonetheless need to do significant issues in house and on the Moon. There are a lot of, many, many individuals around the globe who’ve the means and have the wishes to do these items, however they don’t have a platform. We need to make the Moon as shut as the following continent.

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