Planetary Radio Host and Producer, The Planetary Society
Astrobotic is one of several companies that are building small, robotic landers to take commercial payloads to the surface of the Moon. With a new contract from NASA to support his company’s work, CEO John Thornton looks forward to touching down in 2021. Senior editor Emily Lakdawalla can’t wait for the Europa Clipper to reach Europa, one of Jupiter’s ocean moons. Who doesn’t want more cow bell? Chief scientist Bruce Betts gets his share as he helps us explore the current night sky in What’s Up.
Peregrine lander on analog lunar surface (close up)
Close up view of Astrobotic's Peregrine lander on analog lunar surface.
Peregrine lander on analog lunar surface
Astrobotic's Peregrine lander on analog lunar surface.
Mike Weasner / Cassiopeia Observatory
LightSail 2 Crossing through the Milky Way (annotated)
This image of LightSail 2 passing through the heart of the Milky Way was captured on 24 August 2019 by Mike Weasner from Oracle, Arizona. It is an annotated version of this image.
What was the first spacecraft to take a picture of Earth from the vicinity of the Moon?
The answer will be revealed next week.
Question from the August 14 space trivia contest:
What was Edwin Hubble’s middle name?
Edwin Hubble’s middle name was Powell.
Transcribed by Planetary Society volunteer Jake Bathman:
[Mat Kaplan]: What will you send to the Moon? This week on Planetary Radio. Welcome, I'm Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Astrobotic is one of several companies that are at the threshold of Earth's only natural satellite. CEO John Thornton will join me to talk about his plans and the big boost they just got from NASA. Everyone who has been anxiously waiting to hear a cowbell on our show about the cosmos is about to be rewarded. Stick around for What's Up with Bruce and you might also be rewarded with a Planetary Radio t-shirt. A lot of you have also been patiently waiting to hear senior editor Emily Lakdawalla's return. Wait no longer. Emily, it has been much too long. I welcome you back to Planetary Radio and I hope we can get back to talking semi-regularly here.
[Emily Lakdawalla]: Well, there's certainly [00:01:00] no Lack of things to talk about.
[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah, well and you talk about them as well with help from a lot of other people in the Planetary Report and we'll be talking to you about the new issue of that coming out very soon. For now, well it was just a few days ago on the 19th of August that we heard from JPL and NASA that the Europa Clipper mission got another go-ahead, that grand mission out to examine that moon of Jupiter. We've talked about this in the past. I don't imagine your enthusiasm has dropped at all for this mission.
[Emily Lakdawalla]: Not at all and I just can't wait to get back to the outer solar system. Since we lost Cassini, there just hasn't been anything out there and it's a vast region of our solar system. There's fabulous planets and fabulous moons, and we should be exploring all of them.
[Mat Kaplan]: Have we in the interim learned anything else about Europa which makes this even more exciting or maybe might help to shape what the people behind Clipper going to look [00:02:00] for?
[Emily Lakdawalla]: Well scientists have been doing everything they can with the data they got back from Galileo and even from Voyager and you can actually do quite a lot with Earth-based telescopes. So they're doing things like trying to figure out if Eurpoa has activity like Enceladus does. Enceladus as you might remember is a moon of Saturn, very small moon that has these geysers coming out of it south pole. And there's certain similarities between Europa and Enceladus that make scientists think that maybe the same kind of thing could be happening on Europa as well. The jury's still out on that. They haven't been able to prove it. So that's something that Clipper... Europa Clipper will definitely be looking for is whether Europa currently has any kind of geyser activity.
[Mat Kaplan]: So they haven't found anything like those tiger stripes on Enceladus yet.
[Emily Lakdawalla]: Well, Europa does have a lot of these linear features, paired linear features that pretty much have to be some kind of place where the crust is spreading apart and material is coming up from below. So that means that there's actually a possibility that we could sort of sample, or at [00:03:00] least measure, the kinds of stuff that's inside Europa because it might actually be on the surface. The challenge is that Jupiter has just the nastiest radiation environment in the solar system, unless you count the Sun. And so all of that radiation slamming Europa's surface altering the chemicals that are there. So you're only looking at like the decay products of what came out of Europa's ocean, but it's still exciting. Scientists can't... just can't wait to get back there.
[Mat Kaplan]: And fortunately... I mean Bob Pappalardo of the Clipper mission told us that of course they've been following the Juno mission very carefully and that missions been doing pretty well in that horrible radiation environment, right?
[Emily Lakdawalla]: Juno has been doing very well. The thing is that you know radiation is one of those things where there's a lot of chance involved. Scientists don't really like chance. You have to you know deal with the fact that if just one particle comes in on a bad trajectory on an early day then it can really fry something important. So you do have to build your spacecraft for the for the absolute worst, and then [00:04:00] hope for the best.
[Mat Kaplan]: This is a Schrödinger's planetary probe, I guess. You never really know with radiation.
[Emily Lakdawalla]: That's right.
[Mat Kaplan]: What about the prevalence of these ocean worlds in our solar system and and maybe beyond?
[Emily Lakdawalla]: Well, we don't know how many of the worlds out there are ocean worlds, but it just seems like an awful lot of them turn out to be when we look at them. Europa is not the only ocean world in orbit of Jupiter. Ganymede has an ocean, Even Callisto has an ocean. And if we're talking the broadest definition of ocean, Io has an ocean. Io is molten most of the way through, it's just a different kind of liquid. And so there's all kinds of exciting worlds out there. Europe is actually the smallest of Jupiter's four big moons. And the other three I think are just as interesting and I can't wait to see what Europa Clipper sees with them.
[Mat Kaplan]: Boy talk about life as we don't know it that would that would have to apply to Io, but hopefully we'll get evidence of very different results on on Europa. Emily always a pleasure. Let's talk again soon.
[Emily Lakdawalla]: Definitely. [00:05:00]
[Mat Kaplan]: That's Emily Lakdawalla, the Senior Editor for the Planetary Society and the Editor-in-Chief of our quarterly magazine the Planetary Report. As I prepared this week's show, Chang'e-4 and it's Yutu-2 lander are still exploring our Moon's far side. India's Chandrayaan-2 has entered Lunar orbit in preparation for a soft landing. And NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center has been named the lead developer of a human lander for the agency's Artemis program. And as all of these progress, a handful of companies around the world are building their own landers working toward the day when the Moon will be open for business. Astrobotic is one of these. It and two others, Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond, recently received substantial NASA contracts for development and flight of small robotic craft that will carry payloads to the Moon. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton recently joined me for an online conversation [00:06:00] that includes his description of an effort that will allow anyone to send something to the lunar surface. John Thornton, welcome to Planetary Radio and congratulations on the tremendous progress Astrobotic is mating making, especially this award of $79.5 million from NASA as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. That's quite an accomplishment.
[John Thornton]: Yeah, thank you for having me. It's a real pleasure to be here and a real pleasure to have be able to say that we were... that we won that contract from NASA, where we're thrilled to have 14 payloads from NASA going to the Moon with us to join the other 14 non-NASA payloads. And I think this is a signal to the world that lunar delivery is reaching its point where it's going to be accessible to the world.
[Mat Kaplan]: It's here. In fact, the best evidence that I saw of that was right at the top of your website, astrobotic.com. Big headline that said, "Now accepting payloads." [00:07:00] That's a real milestone.
[John Thornton]: It is. Yeah. We are really excited. We started this 12 years ago with a dream originally to go and compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, and we turn that into a viable long-term business of taking payloads up to the surface of the Moon and essentially being a one-stop shop for customers all over the world to access the Moon and ways, they've never been able to afford.
[Mat Kaplan]: We've talked to some other folks who were candidates people who were hoping to pick up that Google Lunar XPRIZE. And of course nobody did. Do you have regrets about that or do you think that it played even though nobody won the competition that it played an important role in getting us to where we are today?
[John Thornton]: No regrets in not winning that but I think ultimately that it did play an important role in the very beginning. I mean one of our biggest challenges from the get-go was convincing people that we fly to the Moon commercially because before that only three nations have ever done it they've all been super powers. So [00:08:00] what makes anybody think a small startup from Pittsburgh could go and do that? So in order to convince everybody Google XPRIZE help create a platform and put serious money up to say, hey, this is not just a flash in the pan. We're going to try to do something for real here. So it took a while, took a lot of a lot of doing but the prize ended up being a helpful platform to launch into the the ultimate business that we're in now.
[Mat Kaplan]: You mentioned Pittsburgh. Are you speaking me from your headquarters there?
[John Thornton]: I am. Yeah, we are based right here in Pittsburgh and and really happy to be here for the city. It's there's not a lot of space infrastructure in town, but we are here because of the robotics talent. So we import space, we home grow robotics, and space robotics is really our special sauce. Our core of what makes Astrobotic competitive and will be competitive for decades to come.
[Mat Kaplan]: Not by coincidence, also the home of Carnegie Mellon University where you used to be a Senior Research Engineer. Did Astrobotic come out of your work there?
[John Thornton]: Yes, we [00:09:00] spun out of Carnegie Mellon University. So actually right when I was graduating was when my co-founder Red Whitaker was was launching an initiative to pursue the XPRIZE. So I had a choice of going to off to big industry or taking my moonshot. Obviously I took the moonshot and never really looked back even in the tough times along the way.
[Mat Kaplan]: Tell me about what's going to happen. If all goes well in less than two years basically tell me about your Peregrine lander.
[John Thornton]: Yeah, two years from now we're gonna be flying our Peregrine lander to the surface of the Moon. So the way that's going to work is we're going to start on a launch vehicle in Florida. That will fly us up to space. We're going to be separated from that launch vehicle and push towards the Moon. And then at that point that's when our our lander takes over. So it's our job to make sure that we're lined up correctly with lunar orbit so we can capture and entered lunar orbit. We then make sure that our Landing site is lined up underneath our orbit and right when it is we fire the engines, slow the [00:10:00] vehicle down, and head for a soft landing on the surface. So we're aiming for a place called Lacus Mortis which translates to Lake of Death. It sounds very dramatic. But we we actually go there because it's a nice safe flat landing site in the upper right-hand quadrant in the Moon about 45 degrees north 25 degrees east. So upper right-hand quadrant as we see in the night sky. So once we land on the surface our lander then becomes the local utility. So we provide power and communications for customers that come with us. So essentially for customers that fly with us we are the end to end service. Their job starts on the surface of the Moon, our job starts getting them all the way out there and supporting their payloads.
[Mat Kaplan]: Kind of a common carrier.
[John Thornton]: That's right.
[Mat Kaplan]: Would it have made you feel any better to go someplace with a more peaceful name? Oh, let's say the Sea of Tranquility?
[John Thornton]: Yeah. We looked at that for quite some time. The other reason that were interested in Lacus Mortis, the Lake of Death, is because there's a... [00:11:00] potentially an entrance to a cave that's in the vicinity of our landing site. And the caves on the Moon are I think underreported in the community and I think one of the greatest discoveries other than water on the Moon since we refocused on the Moon in the last decade or so. But the the caves could be incredibly important to the future of humanity on the Moon because they provide natural protection from the elements. Protection from radiation from the Sun, protection from micrometeorites because there's no atmosphere to burn them up, and also protection from the thermal extremes on the surface. So the caves could be where people settle for the first time on the Moon, as opposed to surface assets as we all see drawn in pictures.
[Mat Kaplan]: Is this possibly one of these lava tubes that we have talked about previously on the show, both on the Moon and on Mars?
[John Thornton]: It is possibly one of those. Yeah, and and the entrance that unfortunately will be a little bit too far from our landing site to drive to but on a future flight we could return. The interesting part about this particular entrance is it looks like it's collapsed. And we hope that it's [00:12:00] collapsed in a way that provides a natural ramp to drive down into one of the caves, because that's one of the biggest challenges to get in these caves they're not just you know in the side of a cliff or something like that they show up as sinkholes. So you have to descend tens or maybe even a hundred meters down to the to the floor of the cave and then go from there into the cavern. So it's very very challenging, and the scale of that is quite difficult and daunting to get a robot inside of, but if you found one or the ramp, hey, you know that might that might be the one.
[Mat Kaplan]: And what exciting potential I okay. We already said less than two years to launch. We all know in the space business because space is hard. That's not a lot of time. Well, what's your... what's your status?
[John Thornton]: Yeah, it is an aggressive launch and we're certainly feeling the feeling the pressure on that one. But we are at a post PDR phase. Where were just a few months away from our critical design review. And that's our last designer view before we buy all the critical components for flight. We have also a couple hardware developments [00:13:00] in work including the integrated avionics unit is essentially the computer to operate the whole spacecraft as well as the structural test model. So those two are critical developments that will occur prior to that review to make sure that the critical systems are checked out for the lander and are indeed working the way we expect them to do. And then we're out building the lander after critical design review and heading to assembly and then test test test test test as much as we can here on Earth.
[Mat Kaplan]: I'm glad you brought up testing. How do you manage that? I mean, do you have access to a nice vacuum chamber?
[John Thornton]: Yeah, we're gonna be working with NASA or for some of that testing and then others will be done by commercial organizations. But but essentially the big challenge with testing a Moon rover and or... sorry, Moon lander. We're also building rovers. But Moon lander, testing is challenging because you can't fly it here on Earth. If you took our Moon lander fully fueled put it out in the parking lot out back and lit it up, it would make a lot of flame and smoke wouldn't actually [00:14:00] take off the ground and that's because it's designed for lunar gravity, not Earth gravity. Because of that it makes it really difficult to test. So what we have to do is take out all the individual components and test them individually to see if they're working then start to piece some together that can work together and then we put it through full hardware simulators where we are simulating the inputs that those sensors will have during the flight.
[Mat Kaplan]: I'll say it again, space is hard, and landing on something is even harder. I mean, are you studying other efforts? I specifically I have in mind the the recent Beresheet landing attempt.
[John Thornton]: Yes, we've been looking at that as well as every other landing that's occurred on the Moon and including Apollo Surveyor, the LunaCod Vehicles, the ones Soviets sent as well as even non-lunar Landings, like like Mars. There are aspects of that that are very relevant. So we're looking at all. The most interesting one with with Beresheet, we know very well with what's going on there. We saw reports on [00:15:00] that and we feel confident that we've mitigated those risks.
[Mat Kaplan]: Since you brought up Surveyor, are you as impressed by those early what mid-60s landers as I and a lot of others are? I mean, it just seemed like such an accomplishment considering how relatively unsophisticated things were at the time.
[John Thornton]: It is remarkable what they were able to accomplish. The computing power of the day was was brand-new right on the on the edge mean maybe they had to build some of the first computers for Apollo. Common saying it's you know, less less computing power than a pocket calculator and it's very very true. So it really relied on ingenuity and pushing the bounds of structural and electrical design to make these things go. So, hats off to all those people that worked on Apollo. It's it's remarkable what they did. And they were inventing these things for the very first time.
[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah.
[John Thornton]: So and a lot of these things that are now commonplace in space started it during that era.
[Mat Kaplan]: There's another line on your website that I love. It says you keep the rocket science to a minimum. What's wrong with rocket science?
[John Thornton]: Yeah. I mean we are out to build a commercial delivery service. So we are not out to create the next generation rocket or the next generation this that or the other thing. We want to make flying to the Moon as routine as possible. So one parallel could be the airline industry. We aren't the Amelia Earhart, we're the we are the first airline in the world. We are making that regular flight to the surface of the Moon and we want to make it as easy as buying an airline ticket. So it's very different kind of approach. We're not we're not looking to break new ground from a technology standpoint. We are looking to deliver reliably again and again and again and that's the priority and it might need new tech to get there. But ultimately the end goal is reliable commercial delivery. [00:18:00]
[Mat Kaplan]: And there are others attempting to do this, of course, we've talked to a couple of them on this show and everybody I mean the landers have some similarities if you look at them with, you know, an unsophisticated eye like mine, but there are surely big differences, too. What sets Peregrine and and Astrobotic apart?
[John Thornton]: Peregrine and Astrobotic from the very get go have been very customer focused from its very foundation. So the lander is built around carrying payloads to the Moon. It's not an afterthought. It's not something that hey maybe they could bolt onto the side of this or something. It's it is fundamentally built as a delivery truck. So the the four they almost look like wings, but the pallet edges that that's encircled the lander that's where the payloads go and everything else is built around that. That's one of the big differentiators and then the next is that we've been selling and working with the market for for a very very long time. We had the world's first lunar payload sale, we also are now leading the world in payload [00:19:00] sales. And of course now we know we've got the big NASA contract as an exclamation point to that that market success.
[Mat Kaplan]: And I want to encourage listeners to take a look at your website Astrobotic.com of course will put up a link on the show page of planetary.org/radio as well because it has lots of great shots of this lander and stuff that's you have to come which I think we'll get to in a few minutes. And some some video as well, but also a lot of really cool information for people who might want to send stuff to the Moon. You already said you got 28 payloads lined up for this this very first landing. Can you talk about some of those? What are some examples?
[John Thornton]: Sure, so they're all listed on our manifest page for for more information. But to just put put some highlights on there. We've got 14 from NASA. So one of those payloads is a precursor payload to study the volatiles that potential resources at the Moon to see if we can [00:20:00] understand more about what's in the the regolith the Moon dirt and see if some of those volatiles and resources could be compelling for people. One of the first ones that were looking at and a lot of the communities looking at is water.
[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah.
[John Thornton]: So if you can find water ice at the poles of the Moon you can turn that into rocket fuel that could be like oil is here on Earth and power the next generation of space exploration and the Moon could become a refueling station. So there's a payload around that. There's also one payload I like to point out is the Mexican Space Agency is sending a payload. They're a modest-sized agency relatively new but they could be the fourth Nation to operate on the Moon after China because they're flying with us. And that's an amazing opportunity for us to be a part of and an exciting for their country and you can imagine that same story repeating all around the world and ultimately gets right back to our core goal as a company is to make the Moon accessible to the world. There's only been three superpowers, [00:21:00] were out to change that.
[Mat Kaplan]: You've got at least one of the payload than I'm going to save a bit because it's an opportunity for everybody to get involved to send a payload to the Moon. But like I said, I'll come back to it. You've also got several very impressive partners. I'm thinking Caterpillar, ULA, that I assume will be giving you your ride get you on the way to the Moon. Airbus. That's that also seems to indicate some... some notable success.
[John Thornton]: Yeah, we value those partners greatly and we've toiled away for many years building those relationships and getting to the partnership stage. And I think that's another thing that sets us apart. We're out to serve the customer, but we're also out to build a team that can deliver successfully the first time and we recognize we are a start-up in Pittsburgh. We've never done this before we need help from the best in the industry. And that's that's where the partnerships with NASA, Airbus, ULA, Dynetics, our propulsion [00:22:00] provider, all come into play. We need the best in the industry working with us to make sure that we can be successful.
[Mat Kaplan]: Speaking of partners, let's go back to NASA and we've already talked about what you're getting from the clips program, but there was also this program that you're a partner in called Catalyst. It doesn't involve money, does it?
[John Thornton]: That's right. Yeah Catalyst is a NASA program. It's a no funds exchange space act agreement is what technically it is, but it essentially gives us opportunity to use NASA Engineers to help build our lander. So it's an opportunity for NASA to commercialize some of their developments and ultimately create the service that we're up to right now. So Catalyst was a I think a fantastic example of a public-private partnership to build up the building blocks of industry because over time the space agency should be building industry in its wake so that it can continue to focus forward on the most challenging things on the horizon for space exploration and development. [00:23:00] So I think NASA has taken a really forward-leaning really excellent approach to this that that really is leading the world in development of the commercial infrastructure. They saw Catalyst and how it could support this and how it could eventually turn into support and create companies that can then respond to NASA service calls like the like the Clips program with their big delivery contract with us.
[Mat Kaplan]: I want to go back to website because it really is fun and one of the fun elements is this great little interactive form. I got as far as... I stopped at the point where I would have clicked to actually send the form into you guys, but it lets you configure a payload. It's pretty simple to do. Talk about this.
[John Thornton]: Yeah, I mean traveling to the Moon and going into space is traditionally a very very complicated thing with a ton of different factors and engineering from thermal design, electrical, mechanical, vibration, EMI, RFI, all these [00:24:00] other factors. What we've really tried to do with this with the service model is boil it down to the very very very bare minimum of what are the key factors? What are the key interaction points that that drive the costs and drive the the interaction for the mission? And that's really what we put together with that mission configurator. So while we're able to do things that are outside the bounds of that we are really trying to make it as accessible as possible and really, you know, we're looking at new space agencies and commercial organizations and groups that have never accessed space before and we think it's our job to make it much easier for them to do that. So as much as we can simplify that process, you know, simmer it down to its bare essentials and offer it up. That's that's really the genesis of what led to that tool on the website.
[Mat Kaplan]: So this is a little bit like what's happening now with a couple of at least a couple of commercial companies that are making it easier for people to get payloads up to the International Space Station. Sounds like you may be going well [00:25:00] literally beyond that to the Moon but but encouraging that had seemed sort of access?
[John Thornton]: Yeah, very soon.
[Mat Kaplan]: All right, let's say that I want to send 10 kilograms to the Moon, about 22 pounds, I think. How much would that cost me?
[John Thornton]: So we charge $1.2 million per kilogram to go up to the Moon. So that would that would run you a cool 12 million. So it's it's a lot to you and I. Yeah. Yeah. It's a lots of you and I but for space agencies and commercial organizations. That is an unbelievable price. Traditionally missions like this for for NASA even could run several hundred million dollars to get this done and we're delivering 14 payloads of theirs for 79.5 million. So on the net it is a huge value to not only the taxpayer here in the US but also to the rest of the world making it possible and accessible in not just at a price point, but at a convenience playing for for everyone to get involved with the Moon. [00:26:00]
[Mat Kaplan]: I'm so tempted to jump ahead to this other opportunity that you and one of your partners were offering much cheaper opportunity, but I'm still going to save it. Let's talk about the future of Astrobotic. Certainly, you're not stopping with the development of Peregrine. There are lots of other plans visible on your website.
[John Thornton]: Indeed. Yeah, Peregrine is just the beginning. So Peregrine is our small-scale delivery service. So can take about 200 kilograms to the surface of the Moon once it's fully fueled and loaded up by about mission two or three. Then we are also building a larger scale vehicle called Griffin, which is about twice the size of Peregrine the can carry about 400 kilograms the surface of the Moon so we can do progressively larger more complex missions to the Moon. A new service that were rolling out is mobility as a service. So the idea is, you know customer right now flies to the Moon stays attached to the lander if they watch to deploy they can and drive off and use our Wi-Fi. But now we have the ability for [00:27:00] customers to just say hey, can you just take me across the surface of the Moon and we'll do that for you now, we have our planetary mobility department up and running and we're now actively selling that as the next service.
[Mat Kaplan]: Is that this little rover called Polaris?
[John Thornton]: Polaris is one of those that's actually our larger rover, maybe the the website might be tough on scale. We have small-scale one's called cube rovers, that would be about the size of a bread box or smaller. Polaris is about the size of a golf cart. So it's relatively much bigger. So Polaris is designed to go to the poles of the Moon and can carry payloads cross the surface there and even in and out of these permanently shadowed craters, so it could be some of the architecture required to extract resources from the poles.
[Mat Kaplan]: When you say cube, of course my ears perk up because we know a little bit about cubes or CubeSats at the Planetary Society with our LightSail. Is this along those lines or is it just coincidence that it's also a cube?
[John Thornton]: It is exactly along those [00:28:00] lines. So CubeSats are a great success and have been so fantastic for the space community and and has really made space accessible to the world because of that very very low price point common component tree very simple architecture. We want to have that same thing with rover. So it's essentially take a CubeSat put some wheels on it. That's cube rover.
[Mat Kaplan]: Very cool. You did years ago some early work on developing drills that could get below the surface of the Moon get at some of those volatiles like water that you were talking about. Do you have work going on still in that area?
[John Thornton]: That's right. Yeah. We are still actively looking at the resources at the poles of the Moon and that's part of what the Polaris Rover is designed for and then a Rover way back in time called Scarab that I worked on the poles of the Moon offer great abundance of water that can be turned into that rocket fuel. So we are keeping a very close eye on that and it's something that we will have a very large hand in going forward because [00:29:00] of the the robotic nature of that. It just hits right up our sweet spot. And we're really excited for that opportunity. And ultimately we want to be able to sell fuel in lunar orbit for folks that are going to the Moon and even beyond. There were studies recently that showed if you could sell fuel from the Moon you could reduce the cost to get to Mars by 50 percent or more. So it's quite dramatic what an offering could do there.
[Mat Kaplan]: How far off do you think is this day when we can make this kind of commercial large-scale use of the Moon's own resources to enable these dreams of Mars and and maybe living on the Moon since you can make rocket fuel, but you can also breathe this stuff once you separate out the hydrogen?
[John Thornton]: It is in work. We know that NASA has interest in sending a mission up to the to the to the to the poles of the Moon and extracting some of the first water from the Moon. We know that there is a lot of research and development going on there. We've got some things going [00:30:00] ourselves. I think it's going to take a little bit of time though. I mean it's kind of like going up and setting... if you're going out and setting up a mine site or any kind of factory that extracting things from from the from the land it takes time to find the right spot and it takes time to develop the right process and technique to make it commercially viable. We are in those early early early stages of figuring out what resources is there? What what composition is it in? What process even can we use to isolate it and extract? And then of course building a robotic infrastructure at the poles of the Moon to to extract it is non-trivial, but I'm hoping that we will see the first pilot plants in about 10 years time and then maybe commercial viability where we're actively selling fuel in the next decades time, maybe 20 years out.
[Mat Kaplan]: Doesn't seem that far off. You mentioned Mars. Does Astrobotic have its own plans for the red planet?
[John Thornton]: We don't right now. It's certainly on our radar where we're keeping tabs on it. But we think there is more than enough [00:31:00] work to be done on the Moon because that is ultimately the best way to get to Mars. So we kind of think of our work on the Moon as a as a building block to get to Mars ultimately using the fuel using a technology using capability that's developed there to learn to have humans on another planetary body like Mars.
[Mat Kaplan]: The moment has come. Tell us about this other payload this other partner and payload that you have from the delivery service DHL. It's called Moon Box?
[John Thornton]: That's right. Yeah, we are thrilled about this program. So we this is actually in response to folks emailing us out of the blue and saying hey, I can't afford 1.2 million per kilogram, but I really want to send something up to the Moon. In response to that, we built DHL Moon Box in partnership with DHL, obviously. What this does is it gives an opportunity for folks all over the world for a few hundred bucks to send something to the surface of the Moon previously. You'd have to be an astronaut like Charlie Duke to leave a picture of your family [00:32:00] on surface of the Moon but now anybody can do that. So it's a really cool opportunity to have your story forever intertwined with the Moon and we have some really fun things that people are sending we've got pictures of people's family. We've got micro inscriptions one of my favorites is the SD cards that that gets sent by schools. So we have schools that will have every kid in the entire school contribute poetry or drawings or literature or whatever it might be so that every kid in that school gets to connect with the Moon in some way. We even have some some pet hair from a family pet that passed. So so really it's just, you know anything that could connect your personal story with the Moon and we are excited to do that. The Moon is our nearest neighbor. It's what we all see in the night sky. We should all have some kind of personal connection to it.
[Mat Kaplan]: I couldn't agree more. I only have one more question. You're the CEO now, of course past president to but at one time you were Astrobotic's Chief Engineer. Do you miss that title? [00:33:00]
[John Thornton]: There are times that I do. I still I love building things started out as a mechanical engineer. So I renovate a house on the side and always do side projects. So I get to get to build things outside of work these days, but CEO takes me a little further away from that here at Astrobotic. But I'm going to be so excited to see the spacecraft come together and up at the engineers of the shooing me out of the high bay every day.
[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah, well, I'm sure you'll still be at the center of things. So when that time comes and best of success to you and the team at Astrobotic as you proceed toward that launch that is now less than two years away.
[John Thornton]: Thank you so much. We're really excited and we are thrilled to be leading the world back to the Moon.
[Mat Kaplan]: That's John Thornton the CEO of Astrobotic which will be going to the Moon if all goes well in 2021. Time for What's Up on Planetary Radio, the Chief [00:34:00] Scientist of the Planetary Society is here. It's Bruce Betts. He's also the Program Manager for the LightSail project which continues about a month now that they've been flying around with those wings raising the orbit. I have to read this upfront from Ryan Motis, in South Bend, Indiana. He simply has a request to make, Bruce needs more cowbell. So Ryan, this is for you.
[Bruce Betts]: Awesome. Well, thank you Ryan. And I thank you, Mat.
[Mat Kaplan]: You're very welcome. Hey, I knew it would come in handy someday.
[Bruce Betts]: Just keep those sound effects around waiting for listeners to request them. The lives ones are best, the Golden Age.
[Bruce Betts]: So there was an actual cowbell?
[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah. Listen, I'll bump the microphone. There it is.
[Bruce Betts]: Wow, please tell me you're wearing it around your neck?
[Mat Kaplan]: See see this is why you are the humor genius.
[Bruce Betts]: The humor genius. Well, [00:35:00] yes, I am. Thank you very much. Thank you. So yeah, would you like to hear about the night sky, Mat?
[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah, why not.
[Bruce Betts]: The cow constellation... No, but I will give you a centaur constellation in just a moment. We've got Jupiter still dominating the evening Sky up there in the South Southwest in the early evening looking like the brightest star-like object. Over to it's right, you'll see Anteres, the reddish star in Scorpius. To its left is Saturn, lookin' yellowish and if you find Saturn and you find Jupiter a little below Saturn to its right to the left of Jupiter is the constellation Sagittarius. It is supposed to be a centaur Archer but frankly most people recognize most of it the asterism of the teapot. It looks like a teapot. So if you've never looked for this find Jupiter find Saturn look for the teapot, it's got a handle. It's got a pot and it's got a lid and a spout and it's just all quite delightful. [00:36:00]
[Mat Kaplan]: How many people know that song still? Do they still sing that? I'm a little teapot, short... Never mind.
[Bruce Betts]: Oh, please. Continue.
[Mat Kaplan]: We don't have time.
[Bruce Betts]: All right.
[Mat Kaplan]: Do you have anymore? Because I have a question for you.
[Bruce Betts]: Yes, please continue.
[Mat Kaplan]: There is a breathtaking image that has been captured of LightSail. I'm sure you know the one I'm talking about.
[Bruce Betts]: Yes. And in fact, I'm glad you brought this up because what constellation is LightSail going through? Sagittarius.
[Mat Kaplan]: That is what I was going to say.
[Bruce Betts]: It goes through multiple. But part of it is going through Sagittarius near Saturn. Yeah, beautiful image of long exposure showing a faint line that is LightSail moving across the image. And Jupiter, Saturn, the Milky Way. Another image for a few days before that that one was taken in Arizona few days for that from Turkey but not as deep and exposure so you don't see the Milky Way. But yeah, it's cool. Well, apparently the spacecraft does exist. [00:37:00]
[Mat Kaplan]: Well kudos to those people who send us those images and you can find them in our social media accounts and probably if not yet very soon I'm sure in the blog at planetary.org.
[Bruce Betts]: You can also find them in the Bruce Murray space image library on our website. All right, we move on to this week in space history was 1976 that Voy... not Voyager. Viking, you know, the other V spacecraft... that Viking 2 landed on Mars at a quite northernly... fairly northernly location with a lot of rocks that would terrify people now, if they're trying to land on Mars.
[Mat Kaplan]: They were just crazy lucky. I mean just so they were able to put those spacecraft together to say nothing and getting them to Mars and and down safely and working for a long time. Just amazing.
[Bruce Betts]: All right, we move on to Random Space Fact.
[Mat Kaplan]: The old astronomer returns.
[Bruce Betts]: The old astronomer, oh Mat [00:38:00] Kaplan you're a delightful young chap. Okay, I was that just went awry. So this is interesting. Maybe knew this, Mat, but starting with Apollo 15, 15, 16, and 17, on the return trip from the Moon one of them did an EVA to retrieve a film and data recording canister from the service module while another popped their head out and helped out.
[Mat Kaplan]: I do remember that. There are some interesting images of this very nice ones. I guess they weren't tempted to do that with Apollo 13 just to see what exactly blew up.
[Bruce Betts]: Yeah, but they got a nice nice look at it when they separated the service module.
[Bruce Betts]: Speaking of frightening, we move on to the trivia contest. What was... I asked you, speaking frightening, what was Edwin Hubble's middle name? How'd we do, Mat?
[Mat Kaplan]: I'm going to give you the answer from Mel [00:39:00] Powell first. He's not the winner. Yes, you already get the joke. He says this is the most brilliant question ever asked him Planetary Radio by Dr. Betts. Too bad his name wasn't Edwin Mel Hubble. Here's our actual winner. And I think he's a first-time winner. Louis Boucher, Louis out of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, who said like you didn't know by now his middle name is Powel. Congratulations Louis.
[Bruce Betts]: Congratulations.
[Mat Kaplan]: We're going to send Louis a Planetary Society kick asteroid rubber asteroid, a 200-point iTelescope.net astronomy account, and a Planetary Radio t-shirt. Yes. They have returned for a limited time. Get yours while you can, or enter the contest anyway. I've got a bunch of other cute stuff here that I think you will enjoy. This one just straight from Mark Wentland in Illinois, without Hubble's discoveries we [00:40:00] could have said we've explored a whopping hundred millionth of the universe via the Voyagers. Thanks to him, we can only say it's at best one trillionth now. Good thing we have the Planetary Society to help fight jerks like him.
[Bruce Betts]: Yes. We are campaigning join our petition to stop the expansion of the universe.
[Mat Kaplan]: We had so many people who picked up on that bit of character assassination that I practiced when I called him a jerk.
[Bruce Betts]: I wondered about that.
[Mat Kaplan]: Brian Jones in Virginia, you called him a jerk. A 1995 New York Times article called him "vain, supercilious, obnoxious, petty, egocentric, shallow, phony, and insensitive, and a big wart."
[Bruce Betts]: Wow, all that may be true except supercilious. Really?
[Mat Kaplan]: Why not? It sounds good. He added, Dr. Betts, you considering rescinding his Bruce Award? From Darren [00:41:00] Ritchie in the state of Washington, interesting to note that per Wikipedia no funeral was held for him and his wife never revealed his burial site. Maybe he just redshifted away. And then, two limericks apparently one fairly well-known. We got it from both Norman Casoon and Craig Balog. It's from somebody named Alexander Rolf. Thanks to Edwin P Hubble our static cosmology was in serious trouble when we saw a wavelength of such tiny strafe it proved the universe was an expanding bubble. I actually like Dave Fairchild better, our Poet Laureate, here goes. The middle name of Hubble, he of telescopic fame, is just the same his daddy used and Powell is the name. An asteroid was named for him this man of high degree because of him Andromeda is now a galaxy.
[Bruce Betts]: That's impressive.
[Mat Kaplan]: Thank you [00:42:00] everybody, even all the people who sent in great stuff that we just didn't have time to read. We can move on.
[Bruce Betts]: All right, we're going to acronym land. What does the acronym SAFER, S-A-F-E-R, stand for with regards to astronaut related equipment on the International Space Station? Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.
[Mat Kaplan]: Probably not related to the zero g toilet, huh?
[Bruce Betts]: Dang it. Now I need a new question. No, it's not.
[Mat Kaplan]: S-A-F-E-R, that's what the Chief Scientist says. You have until Wednesday September 4th at 8 a.m. Pacific time to get us this answer. How about a 200 point iTelescope.net account, that data worldwide network of telescopes operated on a non-profit basis out of the southern hemisphere of this planet and a Planetary Radio t-shirt and how about this instead of an asteroid, it's it's so much cooler you can do a lot more with [00:43:00] it. How about a copy of Super Cool Space Facts, a fun fact filled space book for kids by the Chief Scientist of the Planetary Society, Dr. Bruce Betts.
[Bruce Betts]: I hear it's very good.
[Mat Kaplan]: I have it in my hand now, I only had the digital version before. It is very good. And and it's much more fun having it in your hand then as a PDF. I'll just leave it at that. It's a good book.
[Bruce Betts]: We done?
[Mat Kaplan]: We are.
[Bruce Betts]: All right, everybody go out there, look up the night sky and think about something that makes you feel SAFER, S-A-F-E-R. Thank you and good night.
[Mat Kaplan]: He might even sign the book for you if you win. I don't know, if you're nice. That's Bruce Betts. So I say it again Chief scientist of the Planetary Society who joins us every week here for What's Up. Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. It is made possible by its members who are loony in a good way. Please consider joining them and leave us a rating or review wherever you are hearing [00:44:00] this episode. Mark Hilverda is our new Associate Producer and so much more. Josh Doyle composed our theme which was arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. I'm Mat Kaplan, Ad Astra.