You may wonder why the moon needs commercial power service, but to John Thornton, it’s the one thing that will make all the difference for successful space missions.
Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, has a passion for helping missions to the moon last longer than just a few weeks since his North Side-based company intends to make its first mission flight later this year — and the first lunar landing for America since Apollo.
In September, Thornton announced at the 73rd International Astronautical Congress in Paris that Astrobotic is developing LunaGrid, a power generation and distribution service that will deliver power by the watt to landers, rovers, habitats, science suites and other lunar surface systems. The service will enable systems to survive the lunar night and operate indefinitely on the moon, starting at the lunar south pole.
“We see it as a unique need. We’re in the business of delivering cargo to the moon and we saw this as a natural extension to that,” says Thornton. “Pittsburgh is quite literally leading the nation back to the moon. That’s a very unusual thing to be able to say. … It will be a historic return to the moon, and the first commercial mission to land on the moon.”
Rendering of the LunaGrid system, including a vertical solar array that captures solar energy, wireless charging systems and a mobile CubeRover to distribute power across the lunar surface. Courtesy of Andrew Grove.
Missions to the moon tend to be short because of the temperature extremes. NASA has mapped the moon’s temperature since 2009, finding daytime temperatures near the lunar equator can reach 250 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures drop to -208 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We need a long-term grid that can survive the night and provide power and allow assets to operate. That could be robots to start, and people over time,” Thornton says. “Current robotic missions are limited in timeframe … but if you have a long-term sustainable power grid, it could be months at a time. That’s a very different paradigm.”
In fact, he says, the world’s collective ambitions for the moon may hinge on establishing continuous, reliable electrical power. Astronaut habitats, communication networks, long-distance rovers, far-side observatories and commercial business plans all require substantial, uninterrupted power. Without power, most of these operations are limited to one lunar day — equal to 14 Earth days — because the lunar night gets so cold. To address this challenge and open the Moon to continuous multi-year human and robotic operations, LunaGrid will supply power to systems for lunar night survival.
Longer term, there may be a need to mine the moon’s shallow craters, a potential source of water for fuel that could allow refueling of spacecraft on the moon so that a mission could then go deeper into our solar system, to Mars or another destination, at a much cheaper cost, he says.
The next step may be to use that energy to start mining the moon’s poles for other interesting materials, Thornton says. “You could then return those resources back to Earth using fuel that’s mined from the moon. That’s a really important thing because right now we mine everything from the Earth.
“The moon is a lifeless, airless body that will never support life. We should absolutely use its resources to support life on Earth.”
LunaGrid will utilize systems under development at Astrobotic: the company’s landers, rovers and wireless chargers, and the Vertical Solar Array Technology (VSAT) that it is developing with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. In August, NASA awarded Astrobotic a follow-on $6.2 million contract to advance its VSAT systems.
“We’ll build the full-scale version of one power plant,” about the size of a large car, Thornton says, at the North Side warehouse where Astrobotic has 47,000 square feet for its offices, clean rooms, laboratory space and mission control. The company is also building and testing its spacecraft there.
The LunaGrid system will integrate a VSAT onto an Astrobotic lunar lander and fly to the moon on a single launch vehicle. Once there, the lander will deploy its VSAT to begin generating solar power. Wireless chargers and tethered CubeRovers will act as mobile power outlets for customers on the moon by bringing power to surface assets.
According to Astrobotic, each VSAT will include the transformers and power management systems to extend power capabilities beyond the VSAT itself and into a fully-fledged power grid.
“Essentially, it’s a mobile deployable solar array,” Thornton says. “It’s got wheels and a roll-up solar panel that can be deployed and go very tall to capture the sunlight at the poles of the moon. The theory is that it should continue to generate power for years to come, but the terrestrial contract we have today is just for demonstration. We have not yet secured a flight to the moon.”
LunaGrid rendering. Courtesy of Andrew Grove and Astrobotic.
Solar power is affordable, commercially friendly, technically mature and deployable now, Thornton explains. That makes LunaGrid “the fastest, most economical means of establishing sustained lunar presence with no policy hurdles.”
Astrobotic hopes to deploy and demonstrate LunaGrid elements by 2026, with a goal of making the first operational grid at the moon’s south pole by 2028. The company could provide power to NASA’s Artemis program, decadal-class science missions, commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) missions, International Space Agency missions, and commercial businesses. The power systems could be placed at several locations on the moon’s poles, and over time the grid could be scaled to increase service coverage.
Founded in 2007, Astrobotic develops advanced navigation, operation and computing systems for spacecraft. Its fleet of lunar landers and rovers deliver payloads to the moon for companies, governments, universities, nonprofits and individuals. It has two fully funded lunar lander missions on the books, and more than 60 NASA and commercial technology contracts. The LunaGrid is the next step, says Thornton.
“Over the last 15 years, we’ve come to appreciate that power on the moon is everything,” he says.