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$10M NASA grant puts Pittsburgh's Astrobotic in orbit with top companies

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, 2:54 p.m.
A mock up of Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander, which it intends to use for its first mission to the moon in 2020. The Strip District-based space delivery company shot photos of the lander at the LaFarge Duquesne Slag in West Mifflin and only edited the sky to include the Earth in the background.
A mock up of Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander, which it intends to use for its first mission to the moon in 2020. The Strip District-based space delivery company shot photos of the lander at the LaFarge Duquesne Slag in West Mifflin and only edited the sky to include the Earth in the background.

Astrobotic hasn’t been to the moon yet, but a recent $10 million grant from NASA puts the Pittsburgh lunar delivery company in orbit with some big names in the private space race.

NASA awarded $44 million this week to six companies to develop cutting-edge technologies.

Those companies included Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, the joint rocket venture of aerospace juggernauts Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and the Strip District’s Astrobotic.

“It’s very exciting in good company” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said Thursday. “I think this is Astrobotic taking one big step forward.”

The $10 million grant is the largest technology development contract in the company’s history, Thornton said. The company has won previous NASA contracts and took home $1.75 million from the Google Lunar XPrize. A majority of Astrobotic’s funding comes from signing up customers and sponsors for its upcoming mission to the moon, Thornton said.

NASA awarded Astrobotic $10 million to develop a sensor suite to help spacecraft make precise landings on the moon and other planets. Thornton said cameras and computer vision will recognize features on the surface — caters, mountains, valleys — and match those images up with detailed maps to guide a lander safely and precisely to the ground.

The technology will be used on Astrobotic’s first mission to the moon, scheduled for 2020.

Thornton said Astrobotic will share the $10 million with its partners on the project, which include NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the agency’s Johnson Space Center and Moog, an international space and defense company.

Going into space and landing on the moon isn’t cheap, but Thornton thought the $10 million from NASA was enough money to develop and commercialize the precision landing technology. NASA’s budget for 2018 is $20.7 billion. President Donald Trump has made returning to the moon a priority for the space agency.

Blue Origin, ULA and Astrobotic were the only companies to receive $10 million or more from NASA. Colorado-based ULA was awarded $13.9 million for three projects. Two deal with fuel and power in space. The third will develop technology to retrieve in midair spacecraft returning to Earth. Bezo’s space venture snagged $13 million for two projects, both related to to exploring the moon.

The Silicon Valley-baed Space Systems/Loral won $2 million for a project to refuel satellite in orbit and $2 million for work on an electric rocket engine.

Frontier Aerospace Corporation headquartered in Southern California received $1.9 million to advance a rocket engine. The company will test the engine on Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander during its first flight to the moon scheduled for 2020.

NASA awarded Arizona’s Paragon Space Development Corporation $1.6 million to develop materials to provide insulation and protection from meteoroids and other space debris.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Aaron at 412-336-8448, aaupperlee@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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