Astrobotic announces plans for lunar power service

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PARIS — Astrobotic unveiled plans Sept. 19 to develop a commercial power service for the moon that the company argues is essential for creating long-term infrastructure on the lunar surface.

At the International Astronautical Congress here, Astrobotic announced its LunaGrid project, which will combine solar arrays the company is developing with tethered rovers that will deliver uninterrupted power to customers on the lunar surface.

Such a power system, said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, is essential for systems that can survive for extended periods on the moon. “What we need is long-term infrastructure that can be there and last multiple years,” he said in an interview. “We see this as the grid for the surface of the moon, principally at the poles.”

The power would be generated by Vertical Solar Array Technology (VSAT) arrays, solar arrays that are deployed vertically and are optimized for operations at the lunar poles, where the sun is always low on the horizon. Astrobotic won a $6.2 million award from NASA Aug. 23 to develop and test prototypes of that solar array, one of three the agency made for similar technologies.

The power would be distributed from the VSAT arrays to users through tethered rovers, based on the company’s CubeRover design. Wireless charging technology would then transfer the power from the rover to the customer’s surface asset. The system would start off generating 10 kilowatts of power but can be scaled up over time. The VSAT arrays will themselves be mounted on rovers and can move as needed.

LunaGrid, Thornton said, is the culmination of technologies that have been in development for years by the company, which is best known for the commercial lunar landers it is building for NASA and other customers.

“It uses every part of the company,” he said, “and showcases why we’ve been looking at developing all of these capabilities because, ultimately, we think that power on the moon is going to be a bigger long-term business than any of our other businesses.”

The first operational LunaGrid system is planned for 2028, but initial elements could be ready sooner. “It could be deployed mid-decade, in time for an Artemis astronaut to actually be able to plug into it,” he said. “This is not a long-term technology that needs continued development.”

Astrobotic expects the initial customers for LunaGrid will primarily be NASA and its Artemis partners to support their lunar exploration plans. “That will probably continue to be the case until something like this exists,” Thornton said. “That’s when it can open up more commercial opportunities.”

When something like LunaGrid is available, missions will become more affordable because they won’t have to develop their own surface power systems, and will also be able to operate through the lunar night. Without the need to have their own power systems “the vehicles could be simpler and more robust,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a case where this pays for itself if you integrated this into the architecture of Artemis, by eliminating the power systems on all the vehicles.”

Thornton said it was too soon to discuss prices Astrobotic would charge for power delivered through LunaGrid. He estimated the development cost of the system at “hundreds of millions” of dollars, “not billions.”

The announcement of LunaGrid comes after Astrobotic finalized its acquisition earlier in the month of the assets of Masten Space Systems for $4.5 million in a bankruptcy auction. Astrobotic confirmed the deal Sept. 13, stating that it will keep Masten’s facilities open at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and continue flights of its suborbital technology demonstration vehicles.

“Masten’s suborbital launch vehicles and propulsion test centers are national assets for the space industry. We are excited to operate and expand these services for companies, governments and space agencies internationally,” Thornton said in a statement about the acquisition.

Astrobotic will also hire back Masten’s workforce, expanding its staff to more than 200 employees between Mojave and Astrobotic’s Pittsburgh headquarters. The company, though, was silent on plans for use of lunar lander technology that Masten was developing or its NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) award.

“On behalf of the Masten team, I am excited to join Astrobotic in our shared mission to make space accessible to the world,” Dave Masten, founder of Masten Space Systems, said in the statement. “This combined organization will let us continue to provide important services to our customers and help us make a bigger impact on humanity’s future in space.”