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Local Company Hoping To Win $20M & Make Pittsburgh A Space Hub

(Photo Credit: KDKA Photographer Lori Sperling)

(Photo Credit: KDKA Photographer Lori Sperling)

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – More than a dozen teams from around the world are competing for a $20 million prize.

And a Pittsburgh company is one of the front runners.

If the Pittsburgh team wins, they say our city could very well become the country’s next space hub.

Inside a nondescript building in the Strip District are the makings of a surprising new industry for the region. Created by some Carnegie Mellon computer and engineering whiz kids is a company called Astrobotic.

“We’re going to carry payloads to the surface of the moon,” said CEO John Thornton. “So we’re like a UPS or FedEX to the moon.”

That’s right. Local scientists are building both a lunar lander and a moon rover as part of a private commercial enterprise to transport all kinds of things to the moon.
Thornton says the potential clients are endless.

“There’s marketing companies, there’s technology companies, there’s exploration groups like the European Space Agency and NASA,” he said. “There’s also groups that want to demonstrate tech that can work in space and how it operates.”

The impetus for this is something called the Google Lunar X Prize.

“It’s a $20 million prize to drive 500 meters on the moon and send back about 15 minutes of video,” said CTO Kevin Peterson.

That’s not easy, especially because of the inhospitable environment of the moon.

“During the day, the temperature of the moon goes above the boiling point of water,” said Peterson. “And then when the sun sets, that temperature drops back down to liquid nitrogen temperatures.”

That’s 321 degrees below zero.

At least 18 teams are competing, but it may come down to two companies, one from Pittsburgh and the other from California.

“I would say there are four to five teams worldwide that are very competitive,” said COO Steven Huber. “We have tough competition with a team from Silicon Valley — Moon Express.”

But this is more than just a one-time contest.

The idea is not just to build this lunar lander to take this rover to the surface of the moon. It’s to create a whole new industry — to make Pittsburgh the space capital of the world.

“Pittsburgh really is an amazing place for this kind of work,” Huber said. “Carnegie Mellon has really brought about a big technical growth in this city, but it’s also nice that we have the industrial background — the aluminum, the steel — everything that really built up Pittsburgh.”

“We will turn Pittsburgh into a space-faring city,” Thornton added.

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