Based in Pittsburgh Astrobotic will send its CubeRover to the moon with a new award from NASA. The company will use the CubeRover to test lunar night survival and longer-distance communication technologies on the surface of the moon.
Surviving the moonlit night is more difficult than one might think. Nights on the moon are long—up to 14 days of darkness at a time—and chilly, with temperatures dropping below -200 degrees Fahrenheit. Such low temperatures pose a serious threat to power components such as batteries and effectively halt many lunar missions before they even begin.
That’s a big problem for NASA, which has ambitions to conduct long-duration lunar missions with landers and unmanned rovers by the end of the decade. Ultimately, the space agency intends to establish a permanent presence on the moon through its own Artemis program. But for this to happen, the heating systems will have to work around the clock.
To solve this problem, the CubeRover will test thermal systems capable of withstanding prolonged darkness and extremely low temperatures. Astrobotic will also demonstrate this technology, which it is developing as part of a subcontract with Advanced Cooling Technologies, Inc. of the Peregrine and Griffin landers.
The CubeRover will also demonstrate the ability to communicate with satellite relay systems. Many existing rovers rely on the host lander to act as a relay to communicate with Earth using existing protocols such as Long Term Evolution (LTE). But such systems depend on an uninterrupted line of sight between the rover and the lander. This puts a serious constraint on how far the rover can travel.
“This mission has the potential to usher in a new era of stable lunar robotics, where instruments and payloads can survive months to even years on the lunar surface,” Mike Provenzano, Astrobotic’s director of lunar surface systems, said in a statement. “CubeRover will survive longer and travel farther than any lunar rover in its class with this flight, making Astrobotic a major step forward in opening up the Moon to sustainable long-term robotic operations.”
The contract is funded through NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Sequential Phase II program. The space agency’s SBIR program is intended to finance small businesses, entrepreneurs and research programs, and has three phases; the third and final phase provides an opportunity for awardees to commercialize their technology with NASA or in the private sector. Astrobotic did not disclose the prize amount.
Astrobotic’s two landers will also head to the moon under contracts with NASA. Peregrine will go to the moon this year with a $79.5 million Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program award; a larger lander, Griffin, will send a NASA rover called VIPER to the moon in 2024, also under the CLPS program. The mission was originally scheduled to launch in 2023, but the agency reported in July was delayed by a year due to the requirement for more tests on the lander.