Peregrine lander. Courtesy of Astrobotic.

After almost 50 years without a visit, America is going back to the moon, and Pittsburgh-based researchers are leading the charge.

On May 31, the Strip District-based robotics company Astrobotic finalized a $79.5 million contract to deliver 14 payloads to the lunar surface starting in July of 2021. They’re one of the first private partners of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Intuitive Machines in Houston and Orbit Beyond of Edison, N.J. were also selected for CLPS.

Astrobotic was originally spun off from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 to develop technologies that would make space travel more affordable. In addition to their previous contracts from NASA, the company also does business with clients like Airbus and DHL.

“Today is a historic day for Astrobotic and the commercial lunar market,” said CEO John Thornton. “It is an awe-inspiring responsibility to be charged with delivering NASA’s payloads alongside our existing manifest of customers.”

He added, “We are proud to join NASA in returning America to the moon.”

While Astrobotic will supply the lander, (the Peregrine model, to be exact) the payload itself will come from researchers and artists based at Carnegie Mellon University.

On June 6, the University formally announced that their Robotics Institute and School of Art will both have projects onboard the craft. Their high-tech creations will gather data and also deliver information and items from Earth.

From the award-winning team at the Robotics Institute: a data-gathering lunar rover that just may change the business of space exploration.

“CMU robots have been on land, on the sea, in the air, underwater and underground,” said William “Red” Whittaker, Fredkin University Research Professor and director of the Field Robotics Center. “The next frontier is the high frontier.”

The assembled MoonArk, which will be embedded with information. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

As Whittaker explained in a press release, their rover is a small affair. It weighs just over four pounds and is relatively cheap to assemble by the standards of space exploration. But just as inexpensive, lightweight satellites revolutionized mass communications a generation ago, Whittaker and his team hope their design makes interplanetary research affordable for smaller companies and research teams.

Cameras mounted on the rover will record its progress along the moon’s surface.

And from the culture technicians at the School of Art: The MoonArk, a tiny, high-tech sculpture with grand ambitions.

Pieces of the MoonArk are loaded with music, poetry and physical samples from our environment. Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

The MoonArk, led by Associate Professor of Design Mark Baskinger and Professor of Art Lowry Burgess, is a complex, eight-ounce sculpture containing vast quantities of information within its layers,  including “poems, music, nano-objects, mechanisms and earthly samples,” according to a press release.

The team at CMU has produced two identical versions of the MoonArk, one which will stay on the lunar surface until friends unknown discover it, and another that will travel to different art and museum exhibitions here on terra firma.

“If this is the next step in space exploration, let’s put that exploration into the public consciousness,” said Baskinger. “Why not get people to look up and think about our spot in the universe, and think about where we are in the greater scheme of things?”

Bill O'Toole

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