Cold Storage: How GPUs Figure Into Delivering Payloads to the Moon

by Tony Kontzer

Talk about cold storage.

By next year, it should be possible to send a payload to the moon for a cool $1.2 million a kilogram, thanks to work being done to help finance the race to drive a vehicle on the moon.

Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh startup that spun out of Carnegie Mellon University, plans to conduct its first lunar mission with its Griffin Lander in late 2016.

It’s a plan that’s geared to make the company a contender for Google’s Lunar XPRIZE competition, which will award a total of $30 million to private teams that can land a robot on the moon; move the robot 500 meters; and send back HDTV mooncasts.

The goal of the competition is to help make space travel more affordable. In fact, it’s doing exactly that—not for people yet, but for payloads.

Astrobotic is selling space on its lander to companies, universities and governments that want equipment delivered to the moon. GPUs are helping to make that happen by enabling the company to more effectively model the journey and ensure its lander arrives safely.

Astrobotic is using GPUs to help it put is lander on the Moon.

Astrobotic’s sponsored payloads are a handy way raise to a healthy chunk of the $100 million mission cost, Kevin Peterson, the company’s chief technology officer, told a full conference room at this year’s GPU Technology Conference.

“As far as we know, we’re the only company that has a configure-your-lunar-mission website,” Peterson said.

While the XPRIZE grand prize of $20 million is a nice carrot, Astrobotic’s business model is, in fact, to become a lunar delivery service and make the moon more accessible in the process.

As for the role of GPUs, they’re used to simulate movements and pressure on the Griffin Lander during launch, helping Peterson and his colleagues determine whether the lander will shake apart or experience excessive high-frequency acceleration.

Peterson said GPUs are also helping to simulate landings—a lot of them—by supporting ray tracing of the moon’s surface so that the Astrobotic team can ensure it can target a landing area the size of a football field. For comparison, NASA’s Apollo missions targeted clear landing areas three miles wide.

“We would like to land and leave a million times before we do an actual mission,” said Peterson of Astrobotic’s desire to be able to land with precision.

By developing that precision landing capability, Astrobotic hopes to break out from the need to land on the moon in places that are flat and safe. Peterson said he and his team want to be able to land the Griffin Lander in lunar pits (formed by ancient lava flows) and the lips of craters. GPUs will make that possible.

“We want to go to more interesting places in the solar system than have been accessed in the past,” he told a couple of a hundred GTC attendees. “Computation is the key to unlocking those locations.”

The last communication between the company and the lander will occur during lunar orbit. Once the descent begins, Peterson said, the mission becomes autonomous, with both the lander—which GTC attendees can see firsthand in the exhibit hall—and rover working similarly to the autonomous car technology being developed today.