PTScientists is democratising space, starting with flights to the moon

PTScientists is building technology that will open up space to more than just governments.

The Berlin-based private space technology company PTScientists is building a business model around space travel.

If you have seen Ridley Scott’s Alien Covenant, you have seen PTScientists‘ technology. Or at least part of it.

Their rover, the AUDI lunar quattro, made an appearance in one of the film’s early scenes.

According to Karsten Becker, head of electronics at PTScientists, the film’s director “found [the rover] so cool,” that he contacted AUDI and asked if it could be used in the film.

“He wanted to have real space hardware in his movie,” Becker tells the Heureka. “Of course, AUDI agreed immediately.”

PTScientists' is building two AUDI lunar quattro rovers, that will visit the US moon landing site.

PTScientists’ is building two AUDI lunar quattro rovers, that will visit the US moon landing site.

Becker was even the one who drove the four-wheeled machine on set. “Many of our friends and fans were like: ‘Hey, wait! What?!’” he  says. “The rover is becoming a small celebrity.”

But outside of cameo appearances in Sci-Fi films and a co-working space in Marzahn whose motto, “we’ve got space,” is incredibly witty, PTScientists is on a mission – a mission to the moon.

If successful, the startup will become the first European entity to land on the moon, joining the US, China and Russia in lunar brotherhood.

A mission to the moon

Long inspired by the detailed and realistic visions presented in Isaac Asimov’s Sci-Fi novels, PTScientists’ CEO and founder Robert Böhme brought a team together in 2008 to participate in the Google Lunar Xprize. The first team to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit high-def video and images to earth would receive 20 million USD.

“We identified many obstacles to tackle along the way but did not find a single reason why we should not do it,” Böhme tells the Heureka.

A small portion of the PTScientists team.

A small portion of the PTScientists team.

In 2015, they created PTScientists, a private space technology company. The PT, which stands for part-time, quickly lost its relevance, Becker shares. Creating the technology and infrastructure to prove there is a business case for providing access to space and space exploration is a full-time job.

“The goal that drives me – and us – here at PTScientists is to further the private exploration of space,” PTScientists’ CEO says. “This seems to be amongst the most difficult endeavours as it takes the focus away from the well-established and lucrative Earth bound services, and forces you to find and prove new ways of generating a profit, while expanding the scope of humanity away from Earth.”

As time went on, the team found themselves unable to secure a launch slot for 2017 – the Xprize deadline – and they grew wary that participating was the best choice for the young company.

They delayed their launch until 2018, and now the team of more than 35 employees in Berlin is devoted entirely to proving that their technology will make space exploration profitable.

“The privatisation of space has opened a whole new world,” the CEO says. “Contrary to my previous – and the general – belief that space is for governments only, I was amazed to find many opportunities to participate.”

An out-of-this-world business model?

Their “economical solution” would allow people to “conduct novel research and bring space activity into new markets,” independent of governments and political groups. The payload options? “Small” deliveries run from .5 to .99 kilograms and cost 800,000 euros. Their “large” package, 2 kilograms or more, costs 700,000 euros per kilogram.

This is why their private spacecraft, the ALINA (Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module), and the rovers need to be as light as possible, Becker explains. Many parts that make up the spacecraft and 80 per cent of the rover’s parts are 3D-printed from an alloy of aluminium, Becker says, bouncing a lightweight rover wheel in his hands.

The ALINA will carry two AUDI lunar quattro rovers to the moon in 2018.

The ALINA will carry two AUDI lunar quattro rovers to the moon in 2018.

Experimenting with such technology is a luxury that government programmes, which are funded via tax payer money, cannot afford, Becker explains: “When we visited the NASA Johnson Space Center and showed off our rover in their test-bed, engineers were sneaking by. One of them said to their colleague: ‘Hey, look! I told you that you can use 3D-printed Aluminium for rovers!‘”

According to the startup, the ALINA can deliver up to 100 kilograms of payload to the surface of the moon, which includes the two rovers. If all 100 kilograms were filled at the lowest price offering, the 7-year-old startup would earn a minimum of 70,000,000.00 euros. On this initial launch there will only be 30 kilograms available for sale.

And the cost of creating the technology? This question is “really hard to answer,” Becker says, before sharing that the production value of a rover is “about a quarter million euros.” That estimate does not include the cost of assembly and research and development, “which is probably the most significant part.”

They also need to take into consideration the cost of launching. Becker shares that since PTScientists is catching a ride on a rocket that is planned to enter Earth’s orbit, and because ALINA is so lightweight (230 kilograms), they can “significantly lower the costs of the launch.” But he will not release any numbers on the current mission. The startup estimates future launch costs for ALINA to fall between 20-30 million USD.

Mars is hard

Everyone is talking about Mars: NASA, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos. But it is not realistic in the near term, says Kate Arkless Gray, PTScientists’ head of communications.

“[The moon] is a perfect proving ground for all the technology that you need to become a multi-planetary species,” Becker says. “[It] is much closer, it only takes a few days to get there and, in case something goes bad, it only takes a few days to return to Earth.”

That is one considerable advantage of private entities over government space programmes: They can experiment with different technologies, like 3D printing, and if something goes wrong, they just try again.

Plus they can streamline production faster without the messy politics of securing funding, which plagues NASA, ESA and DLR.

Every agency we talked to knows that some of the stuff they do could essentially be done cheaper if it would be less political,” Becker explains.

But PTScientists is about more than low costs and soaring revenues, it is about democratising access to space. “If we are successful this is most certainly a win-win for all of humanity,” the CEO says.

365 days and counting…

The launch is planned for 2018, but “an exact date hasn’t been agreed [upon] yet,” Arkless Gray says. “We have to take into account the needs of the other organizations who are sharing the rocket with us – it comes down to some pretty complex orbital mechanics.”

Not to mention, “launch dates tend to slip due to all sorts of reasons,” she explains. At the moment it looks like there will be two major launch partners, but PTScientists is not at liberty “to discuss who our shared-ride partners are.”

What they do know is that they will launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a Falcon, a rocket designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

“The ideal scenario is of course a safe journey all the way down to the resting place of the Apollo rover at the Apollo 17 landing site,” says Böhme.

“The great thing about our low-cost approach to space exploration is that a failure is not as costly as with a traditional mission, thus making multiple re-runs and iterations possible,” the CEO says.

Photo credit: PTScientists

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