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SpaceX’s announcement September 17 of its first passenger tourist for a flyby mission to the Moon marks an important step in the evolving commercial space sector. While there are plenty of unanswered questions around the announcement – such as, how much development and testing is needed before SpaceX’s BFR can actually safely take a human around the Moon – the event underscores an emerging reality: we’re about to see a lot of commercial space activity around the Moon.
“The Moon’s time has come,” as Dan Hendrickson, VP of business development at Astrobotic, said earlier this year. Astrobotic is gearing up for the launch of its first mission to the surface of the Moon, slated for 2020. “We have been waiting for a moment like this one for some time, and we are excited and thrilled to be serving this new reposture to the Moon that the United States and many other countries around the world have engaged in and committed to,” he said, speaking on a panel at the Space Tech Expo in May.
Astrobotic is one of a group of space companies looking at commercial services to the Moon in the near term. The company is using what it calls a “shipping model approach” to deliver uncrewed payloads to the Moon, which Hendrickson described as “a remarkably different way of doing business than what has been previously seen for planetary missions.”
Astrobotic has developed a product line of lunar landers for ferrying payloads to the Moon for $1.2 million per kilogram. Hendrickson said the company’s innovative model will open up new opportunities for commercial activities on the lunar surface, and could help make planetary missions look more like cargo re-supply missions to the ISS.
“In the past, when space agencies have done planetary missions in the past, they basically designed a planetary lander for one specific set of missions, and once that mission is complete, they move on and create a new design every time they create a new mission,” Hendrickson said. “We want to change that design approach for planetary missions and particularly lunar missions by creating a spacecraft bus that’s a product line. We carry a diverse amount of collection of payloads, [and] we’re able to offer a historically low cost for delivering payloads.”
The company has seen significant market traction with its lunar landers, indicating that there’s plenty of global demand for a shipping service to the Moon at the $1.2 million per kilogram price point.
“Currently we have 140 payloads in our sales pipeline,” he said. “That’s valued at over $3 billion, which I think is really remarkable. But perhaps what is more remarkable is that we have actual established sales.”
Astrobotic currently has 12 signed deals for its first mission. And while Hendrickson said that makes Astrobotic a leader in the lunar payload delivery market, it’s Astrobotic’s customers that are really impressive. First, there’s Arch Mission Foundation, which is sending a miniaturized library to the lunar surface. “That’s really emblematic of all the new types of missions that are now enabled by $1.2 million per kg to the lunar surface,” Hendrickson said.
And there’s also Mexico’s space agency, Agencia Espacial Mexicana (AEM), which is sending its first payload to the Moon on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander. It will be the first Latin American scientific instrument on the surface of the Moon.
And, notably, there aren’t any NASA payloads on the manifest. Hendrickson said that makes for an interesting commercial space story. In many cases, a company like Astrobotic would “have NASA payloads first, and then they have non-NASA payloads join the manifest,” Hendrickson said. “But this has been the opposite, which I think is really good new story for the industry and the program.”