German X Prize team announces launch contract

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WASHINGTON — A German team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize said Nov. 29 that it has signed a contract to launch its lander, carrying two rovers, by late 2017.

Berlin-based PT Scientists said that it signed a contract with Spaceflight Industries for the launch of its lander as a secondary payload on a vehicle yet to be identified. Seattle-based Spaceflight serves as a broker for secondary payloads and works with a number of launch service providers.

Karsten Becker, head of electronics for PT Scientists, said at an online press briefing Nov. 29 that a SpaceX Falcon 9 is the most likely vehicle that Spaceflight will use to launch their lander. “We are very confident that it will be a Falcon 9, but we cannot say that it will be a Falcon 9 just yet, because Spaceflight needs to confirm it with their other customers, and SpaceX,” he said.

PT Scientists and other teams participating in the Google Lunar X Prize are facing a Dec. 31 deadline to submit launch contracts to the X Prize Foundation and have them validate the contracts in order to continue in the competition. To date, the foundation has verified launch contracts for only 3 of the 16 current teams: Moon Express, SpaceIL and Synergy Moon.

Becker said that PT Scientists and Spaceflight have submitted their launch contract to the X Prize Foundation for verification, a process that is ongoing. “We are in good discussions with them, and are quite confident that they will verify it by the end of the year,” he said of the X Prize Foundation.

PT Scientists started in the competition as Part Time Scientists, so named because the team members were volunteers that worked on the proposed mission in their spare time. The effort has evolved into a more professional venture, with 12 full-time employees now, Becker said.

German automaker Audi has also become a major sponsor for PT Scientists, providing support for the development of the team’s rover, now known as the Audi Lunar Quattro rover. The team has additional partners that Becker said PT Scientists would announce in the coming months that are helping fund the overall venture.

PT Scientists’ initial mission, to win the $20 million first prize in the Google Lunar X Prize, involves landing their Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module (ALINA) lander near the Apollo 17 site. The lander will then deploy two rovers that will travel towards the site, with specific plans to approach the Apollo 17 lunar rover left behind by that last human lunar landing mission in 1972.

ALINA will carry, besides the two rovers, several other payloads, ranging from a lunar plant growth experiment to a copy of the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. The team is selling payload space on its lander for 750,000 euros ($800,000) per kilogram.

Becker said PT Scientists has ambitions for future missions, including to the lunar south pole where there are both permanently shadowed craters, thought to host water ice, as well as peaks that are in near-constant illumination. Becker said they estimate a lander mission, carrying 100 kilograms of payload, would cost them 40 million euros ($42.5 million) each, allowing them to be profitable provided they are able to sell most of the payload space on future missions.

Becker said that PT Scientists also has aspirations beyond the moon, in particular Phobos, the larger of the two moons of Mars. “Phobos is a very nice outpost to Mars,” he said, adding that such a mission was only a long-term goal for the team. “It’s a very far-fetched vision.”

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