Mexico’s fledgling space agency has purchased a ride to the surface of the Moon from one of the contenders for the Google Lunar X-Prize, potentially opening the door to a new commercial space market that could one day include human “sovereign clients.”
Astrobotic, which hopes to take the $20 million first prize for a private robotic landing on the Moon, and then use the technology it is developing for that to build a lunar “FedEx or DHL”-type business, has signed the Agencia Espacial Mexicana (AEM) as a payload customer for the lander it is building to take a small rover to the surface.
Astrobotic is not the first company to offer commercial spaceflight services to governments unable or unwilling to develop their own, but it appears to be the first to sign one up as a paying customer. Bigelow Aerospace uses the phrase “sovereign client” to describe a major target of its marketing—developing-nation agencies such as AEM—as it continues to push the use of its expandable orbiting habitats as commercial space stations for government-backed research.
Mexico’s goals with the Astrobotic agreement are more modest. The AEM has issued a request for proposals (RFP) to Mexican companies and universities seeking a payload to be integrated with Astrobotic’s Griffin lander, named for the mythological four-legged flying creature. Created in July 2010, the agency is trying to find a niche for Mexico in space to expand its aerospace industry and inspire its science and engineering students.
“Mexico and other Latin American countries want to participate more and more in the great missions of humankind in the space age, even in a modest [or] even in a gradual way, that will provide us with knowledge and technology that will be used for other Mexican and Latin American needs,” says AEM General Director Francisco Javier Mendieta Jimenez.
That is the motivation Bigelow is trying to tap with its pitch to sovereign clients. The company has two of its inflatable spacecraft in unmanned orbital flight test, and is set to launch an expandable module to the International Space Station (ISS) late this year for human trials with station crew members.
“The business model isn’t that dramatically different than what you’ve seen with the ISS, where you have a professional astronaut corps,” says Mike Gold, head of Bigelow’s Washington operation. “On one end of the spectrum you have countries with a history of human spaceflight that will either want to continue or possibly increase the number of astronauts you fly per year, because the opportunities are very limited aboard the ISS. Then you have countries that would be new entrants and would like to develop their astronaut corps for the first time, particularly if it can be done on an affordable basis.”
Astrobotic has a published price of $1.2 million per kilogram to deliver payloads to the lunar surface, which is well within Mexico’s price range. The exact size and mass of the AEM payload is still to be determined, depending on the results of the agency’s RFP, according to Astrobotic CEO John Thornton.
“We would anticipate something on the order of a shoebox or a toaster,” he says. “It would be lander-mounted. It would probably be heavy in the science and exploration instruments and potentially sensors that would operate with our power systems. But in terms of what it is, we don’t know yet, until we hear back from the Mexican scientists.”
AEM expects to award a contract in August based on the response to its RFP, which was published in May under Mexico’s AEM-CONACYT (El Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología) fund of Trusts for Space Science and Technology. The payload will be built in Mexico and shipped to Astrobotic for integration into the Griffin Lander.
The company has planned a launch with, but has not booked the mission yet, Thornton says. That could be important, because the X Prize Foundation has extended the deadline for a lunar landing by one year, to Dec. 31, 2016, and stipulated that at least one contestant must have scheduled a launch by the end of this year.
Like the Ansari X-Prize for the first private human spacecraft to reach the edge of space twice, the Google Lunar X-Prize was designed to stimulate commercial missions to the surface of the Moon. It offers a total of $30 million in prizes for contestants who land, move at least 500 meters and send back high-definition “mooncasts.”
Astrobotic is a private company spun out from Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie is developing a lunar rover that will ride on the Griffin lander.
“Many people just aren’t aware that it’s possible to spend low-digit millions to land on the Moon,” Thornton says. “That possibility, once entertained at groups from around the world, is extremely enticing. The price point is really game-changing for a lot of these organizations. Usually it’s two orders of magnitude larger to even consider a Moon landing. So we provide the capability for small organizations and small nations to land on the Moon.”
The Pittsburgh company is one of three Lunar X-Prize participants working with’s Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar Catalyst) program under a non-funded Space Act agreement that gives it access to expertise, equipment and software in exchange for engineering data on robotic lunar landing. Like the X-Prize Foundation, the U.S. space agency is interested in spurring a commercial route to the lunar surface.
“Robotic missions to the Moon have revealed the existence of local resources, including oxygen and water, which may be highly valuable for exploration of the Solar System,” says Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division. “The potential to use the lunar surface in partnership with our international and commercial partners may allow these resources to be characterized and used to enable future exploration and pioneering.”
Bigelow’s Gold sees NASA playing the same role for his company with its ISS work, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). The agency awarded the company a $17.8 million contract to develop BEAM, which will spend at least two years berthed to the space station for crew experiments on its habitability, radiation environment and safety characteristics.
“NASA has an important role to play, similar to what occurred with [the Commercial Orbital Transportation Service’s effort to seed development of commercial ISS cargo delivery],” Gold says. “When you saw NASA execute contracts for transportation services, then the international community felt sufficiently confident to get on board with those services. I believe you could see the exact same phenomenon play out in human spaceflight. The demand exists. We just need that catalyst to open the doors to international cooperation, and the full commercialization of human spaceflight, which will free NASA to do what it does best in terms of pushing the envelope of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”