NASA awarded a $5.6 million contract to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to develop an autonomous lunar rover, the company said yesterday. Through NASA’s Lunar Surface and Instrumentation and Technology Payload (LSITP) program, the award will prepare the rover for a flight to the Moon on an upcoming mission, possibly as early as 2021 or 2022.
The MoonRanger, a 13 kg autonomous rover, is being developed with Carnegie Mellon University to provide high fidelity 3D maps of the Moon’s surface, including areas such as polar regions and lunar pits. The rover will also demonstrate high-speed, long-range, and communication-denied autonomous lunar exploration abilities, Astrobotic said.
“MoonRanger offers a means to accomplish far-ranging science of significance, and will exhibit an enabling capability on missions to the Moon for NASA and the commercial sector,” said William “Red” Whittaker, a professor at Carnegie Mellon. “The autonomy techniques demonstrated by MoonRanger will enable new kinds of exploration missions that will ultimately herald in a new era on the Moon.”
New missions through autonomy
New missions that the MoonRanger could take on include exploring lunar pits, characterizing ice, investigating magnetic swirls, and deploying future mobile instruments on the lunar surface, the company said. The rover has a light weight and size, which equates to a more affordable flight platform. The company said this will be a test platform for autonomy “that will usher in a new era of operability in space.”
Astrobotic said MoonRanger will join Polaris and CubeRover as an additional offering that extends the company’s mobility as a service to customers worldwide. “This latest NASA award to develop MoonRanger for a mission to the Moon is another example of how Astrobotic is the world leader in lunar logistics,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic. “Our lander and rover capabilities are designed to deliver our customers to the Moon and allow them to carry out meaningful, low-cost activities for science, exploration, and commerce.”
Earlier this year, Astrobotic was awarded $79.5 million by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to deliver 14 payloads to the Moon on its Peregrine lunar lander in July 2021. The company said the additional award for MoonRanger would prepare it for a flight through the CLPS, along with additional payloads secured by Astrobotic. The company was also chosen as one of two companies to study the first payload delivery mission to the South Pole of the Moon.
In addition to the MoonRanger payload, NASA selected 11 other science and technology payloads to help study the Moon, including:
- Heimdall, a flexible camera system for conducting lunar science on commercial vehicles.
- SAMPLR, a sample acquisition technology from Maxar Technologies that uses a robotic arm (flight spare from the Mars Exploration Rover mission).
- PlanetVac, a technology by Honeybee Robotics that acquires and transfers lunar regolith from the surface to other analyzer instruments.