Pittsburgh’s ambassadors to space are ready to return America to the moon

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander launches this year from Florida carrying NASA payloads

Astrobotic's Peregrine moon lander. (Image: Astrobotic) (WKMG 2021)

Several private companies launching moon landers later this year from Florida will kick off a grand campaign to better understand our nearest neighbor, with big implications for when NASA returns humans to the moon in a few short years.

Both Astrobotic and Intuitive Machine are months away from launching the first American missions to land on the moon since 1972. The companies were selected under NASA’s commercial lunar payload services, or CLIPS, program.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton joined the WKMG and Graham Media Group podcast, “Space Curious,” to talk about the Peregrine lander slated to launch on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral.

“Pittsburgh can barely believe that there’s a moon company in town here,” Thornton said of its headquarters located a couple blocks from Heinz Field.

While the hometown of the Steelers may not be a normal “space town” like Houston or Cape Canaveral, Thornton said Astrobotic is “proud to be the ambassadors of space to Pittsburgh” and they consider themselves the “poster child of space” for Pennsylvania.

Founded in 2007 with the goal of becoming the first private company to land on the moon and win a $20 million Google Lunar XPrize, the team quickly realized its mission was more than going after the prize winnings.

“And over time, we settled on the lunar delivery model. We actually made the world’s first lunar payload sale to a company in Japan. And then that led to another one and another one and another one,” Thornton said. “And then just last year, NASA came in with a big $80 million contract to take their payloads to the surface of the moon. And they came in again this year with a $200 million contract to take additional payloads to the surface of the moon on a second subsequent mission.”

Astrobotic builds several robots designed to land, crawl or drive on the moon. NASA has selected its smaller Peregrine lander, and the larger, Griffin lander, to deliver important missions for the space agency to the moon.

First up is Peregrine, named for the peregrine falcon, launching in the fourth quarter of this year.

Essentially, anyone or any company can buy space on Peregrine to conduct research on the moon. It’s about 8 feet in diameter, 6 feet tall and has four decks for customers’ payloads.

“Then once we land on the surface, then we become the local utility. We provide power and communications for our customers, so that they can operate their payloads on the surface,” Thornton said.

For the first mission, it’s about a dozen NASA instruments, including a radiation sensor, cameras that are looking at the moon dirt as we’re landing and sensors that are examining the soil as we land.

Astrobotic’s lander is also carrying a payload for the Mexican Space Agency.

“They could be the fourth nation after China to operate on the surface of the moon. So it’s pretty, pretty cool to be a part of their great, great story here,” Thornton said. “And they’re building and sending small micro-vehicles up to the surface.”

Peregrine will deliver a tiny rover from the U.K. with plans to walk across the moon; two payloads from Japan, including a time capsule from a soft drink company called Pocari Sweat with messages from children around the world; and then a whole host of other much smaller items are going up via DHL, the international shipping company.

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Astrobotic has a program called DHL Moon Box that allows anyone to send tiny items to the moon. On this run, capsules will include some hair from a family pet, photographs, inscriptions and a piece of Mount Everest.

“They’re actually sending a piece of Everest up to the surface of the moon, which is going full circle because there was an astronaut that brought a moon rock to the peak of Everest,” Thornton said.

The cost of sending a personal item to the moon depends on the size of the box it goes up in. The Astrobotic website lists the cost of three moon boxes starting with a half-inch-wide box and about .125-inches high for less than $500. The largest item, at 2 inches high and 1 inch wide, costs just under $26,000, according to the website.

“The whole idea is for everyone to be able to look up in the night sky and say, ‘Now there’s a part of my story or my family’s story on the surface of the moon, and it will be there for all time’ and you’ll see the night sky every night,” he said.

After watching their spacecraft launch from Cape Canaveral, Thornton and his team will then head back to mission control in Pittsburgh to prepare for the landing.

A mosaic of the region of Lacus Mortis. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University (WKMG 2021)

“We have to be lined up just right and right over our landing site,” Thornton said. “And that’s because that circular orbit is not very stable. So that’s the last moment, the last chance. And then from there, it’s a fully autonomous descent down to the surface.”

Peregrine will look for a safe spot to land using real-time imaging, matching it with maps of the moon.

“That’s our map finder, our GPS on the moon if you will, and that’s telling the spacecraft where to land and then our spacecraft is firing engine, slowing down, and taking as much energy out as it can, firing small correction maneuvers along the way to make sure that spacecraft is oriented just right, so it can land perfectly,” Thornton said.

A similar terrain navigation system was recently used by NASA to land the Perseverance rover on Mars.

At this point, the fuel tanks are pretty much empty for Peregrine.

“So, we only have one shot to get it right,” Thornton said.

If it goes as planned, Peregrine will touch down within lacus mortis, which translates to “lake of death,” on the side of the moon facing Earth.

“We’re just hoping we’ve done all of the work correctly over the years and years of development that have gone into it,” Thornton said. “That’s going to be the nail-biter moment.”

Many space agencies have attempted moon landings and failed on their first try. NASA had a long list of failures before success. In 2019, a private Israeli company’s lander crashed onto the moon, which would have been the first commercial landing.

Now, Astrobotic is set up to be among the first to privately land -- not to mention, securing the title of ambassadors of space to all of Pennsylvania.

“Space Curious” is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media Group that answers your intergalactic questions. Hosted by space reporter Emilee Speck, each episode is designed to inspire everyone, from the space curious to the space fanatics. Questions for the podcast can be submitted here.

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