CAPE CANAVERAL— Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company, has signed a launch services contract with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) for a Falcon 9 rocket to deliver a lander, small rover and up to about 240 lb. of payload to the surface of the Moon, the company announced Feb. 6.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed. Falcon 9 rockets cost between $49.9 million for low Earth orbit missions and $56 million for flights carrying 4,680 kg. (10,320 lb.) to geotransfer orbit, according to SpaceX’s website. The company offers a 10% discount to contenders in the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition intended to kindle private space missions.

Astrobotic, which is among 21 teams vying for $30 million in X Prize funds, will use the Falcon 9’s upper stage for a four-day flight to the Moon. The earliest launch date is December 2013.

The landing site, originally targeted for the Sea of Tranquility near where Apollo 11 touched down, is up for grabs, as is the name of the spacecraft, once called Artemis, and the name and destinations of the 1.5-meter tall, 1-meter wide rover.

“We have to sell a lot of payload to make the economics work,” Astrobotic President David Gump tells Aviation Week. “The customers will decide where we go.”

In a November 2010 solicitation, the company priced carriage to the Moon at $700,000 per pound, plus a $250,000-per-payload fee to cover the cost of integration and to provide communications, power, thermal control and pointing services. “Power, thermal control and comm on the lander is negotiable,” the company said.

The 4.5-meter spacecraft is being designed to make a precision landing using technologies developed by Carnegie Mellon for guiding autonomous cars. It will carry a rover that can be deployed for three months of exploration on the lunar surface. The lander will provide power and communications, including high-definition 3D video for distribution via the Internet.

“The mission is the first of a serial campaign,” William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic chairman and founder of the university’s Field Robotics Center, said in a press release.

Future expeditions will explore lunar “skylight” holes and caves as havens from temperature extremes, radiation exposure and micrometeorite bombardment, the company says.

Astrobotic is among 21 teams registered to compete in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, a successor commercial space stimulus project to the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private manned suborbital flight, clinched by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne in 2004. The lunar X Prize offers a $20 million grand prize for the first team to land a rover on the moon before Dec. 31, 2015, travel at least 500 meters on the surface of the Moon and transmit high-definition pictures and video back to Earth. The prize drops to $15 million if a government agency gets there first.

Another $4 million in bonus funds are available for other achievements, such as operating at night, traveling more than 5 km. over the lunar surface, detecting water and making a precision landing near an Apollo site or other site where spacecraft have landed or crashed. An extra $1 million is available for the team that “demonstrates the greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration.”

A team that reaches the Moon second can win $5 million. Spacecraft launching from Florida are eligible for an additional $2 million in state funds.

Astrobotic already holds a $10 million NASA contract for lunar landing technologies engineering data, a $500,000 task order for a hardware demonstration test and a $600,000 phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research grant for design and construction of a prototype lunar mining robot that could recover frozen volatiles at the poles for use as fuel. Its partners include Carnegie Mellon, Lockheed Martin, International Rectifier, Caterpillar and Ansys.

SpaceX CTO and founder Elon Musk says no configuration changes are necessary for the Falcon 9 to perform missions to the Moon, Mars or elsewhere. Payload to the Moon is about 3 tons, and to Mars would be about 2 tons, he wrote in an e-mail to Aviation Week.