Close-up of Peregrine lander. Rendering courtesy of Astrobotic.

When America returns to the moon, Pittsburgh will be well-represented.

On July 2, NASA formally awarded a $5.6 million contract to the Strip District-based Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to build an autonomous rover for the organization’s looming lunar mission.

The MoonRanger, as the rover is known, could travel to our planet’s natural satellite as early as 2021 or 2022 as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), a program in which CMU and Astrobotic are already deeply involved.

In May, Astrobotic won a $79.5 million contract to deliver 14 payloads to the lunar surface starting in July of 2021 via the company’s Peregrine lander (pictured above), while CMU agreed to send both a small, exploratory rover and the MoonArk, an eight-ounce sculpture containing vast quantities of art and information within its several metallic layers.

According to a media release, The MoonRagner will be an autonomous vehicle about the size of a suitcase designed for long-range exploration. Project leaders said the craft will be capable of spending seven earth days prowling the lunar surface which will, in turn, greatly expand the scope for new research and commercial ventures on our natural satellite.

“MoonRanger offers a means to accomplish far-ranging science of significance, and will exhibit an enabling capability on missions to the Moon for NASA and the commercial sector,” said William “Red” Whittaker, director of the Field Robotics Center at CMU. “The autonomy techniques demonstrated by MoonRanger will enable new kinds of exploration missions that will ultimately herald in a new era on the Moon.”

For its maiden voyage, the self-driving craft will scan and create 3D maps of some of the most remote areas of the lunar surface, such as craters and polar regions. In addition to providing valuable data, the MoonRanger is also meant to serve as a proof-of-concept for how inexpensive autonomous vehicles can carry out research in even the most extreme conditions.

NASA announced the project along with 11 research projects that will share space on the Peregrine Lander.

“The selected lunar payloads represent cutting-edge innovations, and will take advantage of early flights through our commercial services project,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Each demonstrates either a new science instrument or a technological innovation that supports scientific and human exploration objectives, and many have broader applications for Mars and beyond.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.