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Astrobotics, wants to space, but stuck on Earth

Even though the first man set foot on the Moon 52 years ago, this satellite still has many mysteries for scientific and commercial organizations that continue to explore it. Astrobotic is one such company as it is a developer of robotics for lunar and planetary missions. It was founded in 2007 by a staff of The Robotics Institute Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and headed by Professor William “Red” Whittaker, the company has made significant contributions to the development of lunar exploration technologies and built several rovers to study the lunar surface, landing, payload delivery systems and navigation sensors.

Astrobotic was founded on the basis of the university, but it requires investment to carry out expensive research. Fortunately, Whittaker is the Chief Scientist of the Institute of Robotics, director of the FRC Field Robotics Center, and the winner of the DARPA Urban Challenge, where he and his team received $ 2 million for a robotic SUV. His reputation as a successful scientist and inventor helped him attract investors. In 2008 Julian Ranger, founder of the digi.me app, NASA Ames Research Center advisor Paul Pelosi and the first president and CEO of Astrobotic – Mitchell London, invested in the company. Pelosi also joined the board alongside President of Pan-Asia Development investment firm Paul O’Brien, former astronaut William Reddy and Qatar Foundation advisor Khalid Al-Ali. Therefore, Astrobotic combined significant funding with CMU’s employees’ scientific expertise and intelligence, which was the reason for its success.

Over the years, Astrobotic has participated in several significant projects collaborating with NASA, SpaceX, and Bosch. The first project was creating two robots to mine simulated lunar mud at the NASA Regolith Excavation Challenge in 2009. Although they did not win the competition, Astrobotic attracted additional investment from Dylan Taylor, president of the real estate broker Colliers International.

In 2011, Astrobotic reached the next level and signed a contract with SpaceX to launch a robotic payload to the Moon in 2013. As part of the collaboration, Astrobotic unveiled the first model of “Red Rover” in 2011, a robot designed with CMU students to find water on the lunar surface. In 2012, a new version of the rover for finding ice, hydrogen, and oxygen on the Moon, “Polaris”, was presented. The spacecraft passed tests, but due to the discovery of caves on the lunar surface, Astrobotic shifted its focus to creating a robot that could penetrate caves and map the territory. In 2014, Astrobotic presented the “Andy” rover that could do these tasks.

Recent projects announced by Astrobotic have led to the development of new rovers – Moon Ranger and CubeRover. Moon Ranger is a small robot designed to map the surface of the Moon and find ice. According to the plan, it should fly to the south pole of the Moon in 2022 under a contract with Masten Space Systems, and currently, the Moon Ranger has passed all the planned tests. CubeRover is another model for 3D mapping the lunar surface, which is smaller and more mobile than its predecessors. Until 2020, it has received about $ 3 million in total investment, passed all the tests, and is planned to be used in the Peregrine mission in 2021.

In addition to rovers, Astrobotic has also created technologies for the safe delivery of payloads to the Moon, landing, and navigation. Actually, the Peregrine mission got its name from the technology The Peregrine Lunar Lander, which will be used to land on the Moon in 2021 automatically. Another automatic landing system, Griffin, will deliver VIPER, a more functional rover for finding water developed by NASA, and Polaris to the Moon’s south pole in 2023. In addition, Astrobotic has collaborated with Bosch to develop the SoundSee, a sensor detecting if equipment needs repair by analyzing sounds, which has already been tested on the ISS.

Astrobotic’s other invention is the topographic software AVOI embedded in the relative navigation sensor in TRN developed in collaboration with NASA and other companies. Another promising technology is AstroNav, a stereo vision navigation system for exploration in lava tubes. In 2021, it was tested in Alaska and showed excellent results. Both technologies are planned to be used in future missions to the Moon.

However, so far, most of Astrobotic’s inventions have not brought benefits to space exploration because none of the projects has been completed. For example, the launch of the payload on the Falcon rocket never took place, most likely, because Astrobotic was unable to pay SpaceX. This assumption is evidenced since the cost of the Falcon launch in 2021 ranged from $ 49.9 million to $ 56 million. Still, Astrobotic received only $ 1.4 million from NASA, and the amount of seed investment from Dylan Taylor is not known but, probably, was not sufficient. In addition, Astrobotic was selling the remaining space (108.9 kg) in a module for $ 1.5 million/kg. It seems that a few people were interested as in 2014 Astrobotic also launched MoonMail, a service for the delivery of small-sized user cargo to the Moon MoonMail. However, Astrobotic’s robots have never made it to space.

Another project in collaboration with NASA has also been postponed several times. In 2017, the company announced that the Astrobotic Peregrine Lunar Lander would be aboard the Atlas ULA launch vehicle in 2019. In 2019, Astrobotic informed that it would use the ULA Vulcan Centaur vehicle instead of Atlas, and the launch was postponed to 2021. This year will end in just a couple of months, but there is no news about the preparations for the launch, except for the demonstration of the mission patch in March.Most shortcomings are likely related not only to underinvestment but also to the ineffective management that company employees have been complaining about for years. For example, a software developer in 2016 wrote about the insufficient skills of supervisors in management, fundraising, and budget allocation. Another senior software engineer left a similarly negative review in 2021, complaining of favoritism, unfair distribution of rewards, low salaries, and high pressure. So, these statements perfectly show that the company faces high turnover and explain why Astrobotic postpones most of its projects and requires additional funding.

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