SpaceX, the rocket company headed by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, sold its first launch to the moon, a mission that gives Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off, an early lead in a $32 million race to land a privately owned rover on the lunar surface.
The contract, announced Sunday, reserves a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to fly Astrobotic Technology's lander and rover to the moon as early as December 2013.
"For every hundred technology developments there is one that has a ride booked. It's a real distinguishing factor," David Gump, president of Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, told Discovery News.
There's room aboard the Falcon 9 for another 240 pounds of additional cargo. Astrobotic Technology is selling the space for $700,000 per pound, plus a $250,000-per-payload fee for integration, communications and other support services.
SpaceX's Falcon 9, which has made two successful flights, is the same rocket NASA is buying to fly cargo — and perhaps eventually astronauts — to the International Space Station after the shuttles are retired in about six months.
Aside from adjusting navigation software, Falcon 9 doesn't need any modifications to reach lunar orbit, Musk wrote in an e-mail to Discovery News.
"Falcon 9 is capable of launching missions to the moon, Mars or beyond. Payload to the moon is about three tons and to Mars about two tons, meaning Falcon 9 could have launched the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers on a single flight," wrote Musk.
The rovers were launched separately aboard two Delta 2 rockets.
Astrobotic Technology is one of 21 teams competing for $32 million in prize money put up by Google and Space Florida, a state-backed economic development agency.
The Google Lunar X Prize is a follow-on contest to the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private manned suborbital flight, clinched by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne in 2004.
The new space race offers a $20 million grand prize for the first team to land a rover on the moon before Dec. 31, 2015, travel one-third of a mile on the surface of the moon, and transmit high-definition pictures and video back to Earth. The prize drops to $15 million if a government agency gets there first.
Another $4 million in bonus funds are available for other achievements, such as operating at night, traveling more than three miles over the lunar surface, detecting water, and/or and making a precision landing near an Apollo site or other location where spacecraft have landed or crashed.
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An extra $1 million is available for the team that "demonstrates the greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration," the X Prize website states.
A team that reaches the moon second can win $5 million. Spacecraft launching from Florida are eligible for an additional $2 million in state funds.
Astrobotic already has a $10 million contract to share engineering data about its lunar landing technologies with NASA, a $500,000 contract to conduct a demonstration test and a $600,000 research grant to design and build a prototype lunar mining robot that could collect frozen volatiles at the poles for use as rocket fuel.
Terms of the SpaceX contract were not released, but SpaceX's listed fees on its website for Falcon 9 rockets start at $49.9 million and go up to $56 million, depending on the mass of the cargo and the desired location. The company offers Google Lunar X Prize contenders a 10 percent discount.
© 2012 Discovery Channel