NASA awarded a pair of contracts worth nearly $200,000 to Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University, both in Pittsburgh, to study Moon excavation robots and methods to simulate lunar gravity, which is one-sixth that of Earth.

NASA selected the excavation robot proposal under its Small Business Innovation Research program. The lunar-gravity simulation proposal was selected under the U.S. space agency’s Small Business Technology Transfer program designed to move university research into the commercial sphere. The two Phase 1 awards total $199,850 and cover six months of work. Astrobotic Technology said in a Nov. 23 press release that the envisioned Phase 2 awards could be worth a combined $1.2 million.

Astrobotic Technology is a Carnegie Mellon spin-off founded by William “Red” Whittaker, a research professor at the university’s Robotics Institute. Astrobotic is among more than 20 teams registered to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million cash purse that will go to the first team to land a robot on the Moon that travels 500 meters across the surface and transmits back high-definition images and video.

In addition to trying to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, Astrobotic Technology intends to send a rover to the Apollo 11 landing site in late 2011 to record and transmit high-definition video.