PTScientists, the Berlin-based private space technology company is building a business model around space travel.
Their rover, the AUDI lunar quattro, made an appearance in the film Alien Covenant. 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.
But outside of cameo appearances in Sci-Fi films and a co-working space in Marzahn, PTScientists are developing 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.
In 2015, they created PTScientists, a private space technology company. The PT, which stands for part-time, quickly lost its relevance. 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.”
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.
Experimenting with such technology is a luxury that government programmes, which are funded via tax payer money, cannot afford, Becker explains.
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 €70m euros. On this initial launch there will only be 30 kilograms available for sale.
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 start-up 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,”
“[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. Also, they can streamline production faster without the messy politics of securing funding, which plagues NASA, ESA and DLR.