With just over 18 months left in the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) competition, one of the leading teams in the race is offering to give other teams a lift to the lunar surface, creating the potential for what it calls “NASCAR on the Moon.” However, that team’s announcement raises questions about how it plans to get its own spacecraft there.
In a press release emailed yesterday (although, as of early Thursday morning, not posted on its website), Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic offered to carry rovers built by other GLXP teams to the Moon on Astrobotic’s Griffin lander. The company plans to send Griffin to the Lacus Mortis region of the Moon, near a pit that geologists think could lead to an underground lava tube cave.
In the release, Astrobotic said it would like to take rovers from at least four teams on that mission (it wasn’t clear if that meant four teams other that Astrobotic, which will have its own rover on the lander.) The rovers would exit the lander and then start moving simultaneously, effectively racing each other to travel 500 meters, one of the key requirements of the competition.
“Not only does the shared launch create a more exciting race for the Prize, it would be the first international competition beyond Earth orbit,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton in the release. It would also address one of the key obstacles for teams: while a number of teams are making progress on their rovers, fewer of them have developed systems to get those rovers to the lunar surface, or made arrangements to launch them.
In its press release, Astrobotic said that it plans to launch its lander on a Falcon 9 flying out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. That contract was announced in February 2011, with plans at that time to launch the mission “as soon as December 2013.” In an interview with Space News published last month, Thornton said they plan to launch in October 2015, and cited the discount SpaceX offered on its prices to GLXP teams that dates back to the announcement of the prize in 2007.
However, a check of SpaceX’s launch manifest fails to turn up a mission for Astrobotic, either in 2015 or later. The manifest shows 16 launches on the manifest for 2015, including 11 from Cape Canaveral, but Astrobotic is not listed among the customers. (Strictly speaking, SpaceX’s online manifest doesn’t specify when the launches take place but “vehicle arrival at launch site”, so some of the 2015 launches could slip into 2016; likewise, some of the 2014 missions listed could actually launch in 2015.)
It’s possible that Astrobotic’s omission from the manifest is an oversight, but if so, it’s a long-running one. A check of several archived versions of that manifest, obtained from the Internet Archive, failed to turn up a listing for Astrobotic. Manifests checked include those from April 2011, January 2012, October 2012, and July 2013.
Alternatively, Astrobotic could be flying as a secondary payload on another customer’s mission, and thus not appear on the manifest. That would require, though, finding a customer both willing to accept a secondary payload and one with significant excess capacity: enough to send a spacecraft with a mass that may be in excess of two tonnes (1,685 kilograms of fuel alone, plus payload and spacecraft, according to the company’s website) on a translunar injection trajectory.
A company spokesperson declined to provide additional details about the company’s launch arrangements. “We have no public update to the status of the launch at this time,” Lauren Schneider, director of communications for Astrobotic, said late Wednesday in an emailed response to an inquiry earlier in the day. SpaceX media relations did not respond to a question about Astrobotic’s launch plans Wednesday.