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Landing a Spacecraft with Engines Blazing

This year’s Lunar Lander Challenge could provide the innovative approach that makes space tourism a reality.
September 13, 2007

In late October, a flurry of rockets will light up the skies in New Mexico as they compete in the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

Staying put: Armadillo’s craft, called Pixel (above), hovers in midair during a test flight. The vehicle’s design features two spherical aluminum tanks for the rocket’s ethanol fuel, and two more for its liquid-oxygen oxidizer.

NASA hopes that technologies developed by the privately funded, competing companies will provide the basis for new systems. Ideally, the systems will be used for routine lunar trips to the moon that the agency wants to begin making, starting about a decade from now.

To win a prize, a craft must take off, ascend at least 50 meters, hover in place, and land, tail down, on a designated spot using rocket power. It must then repeat the sequence in reverse, all within two and a half hours. There are two top prizes: one involves hovering for 90 seconds, and the other requires a full 180 seconds of hang time. All vehicles must be created without government funding.

The odds-on favorite to win both top prizes this year is the team that was the only contender last year: Armadillo Aerospace, of Dallas, a company founded by video-game creator John Carmack. The team has already met all the requirements needed to win during test flights this year with its prototype vehicle, called Pixel.


  • Watch Pixel hover in midair then explode during a tethered test flight.

  • A four-camera video shows one of Pixel's competition flights.

But that’s still no guarantee of success–as the company demonstrated all too vividly late last month. A twin of Pixel, called Texel, was being put through a test flight to try out some new software when the engine-cutoff system malfunctioned during its landing, sending the vehicle soaring upward again. The test flight ended in a fireball, and flames destroyed the vehicle beyond repair. Still, the company decided to speed up construction of its next-phase Module 1 craft, and it will enter vehicles in each of the challenge’s two levels.

Seven other teams are planning to compete for the prize money, although none is quite as far along as Armadillo. Some of them, like Armadillo, see the prize as just a stepping-stone on the road toward developing practical suborbital rockets–or even orbital craft–to meet an expected demand for space-tourism flights. Others are operating on a shoestring, competing for the sheer thrill of it.

For NASA, the contest is not so much about developing an actual vehicle that could fly on the moon–none of the vehicles competing are capable of that–but about building up ideas and expertise that will eventually lead to such vehicles. “They’ve taken an area of technology where there was essentially no activity and made it a real hotbed of activity,” says Will Pomerantz, director of space projects for the X-Prize Foundation, which is cosponsoring the event. The teams have already spent millions of dollars in developing their craft, “and NASA has not yet paid out a single dollar,” Pomerantz says.

So when the time comes to design the vehicles that really will fly on the moon, “we’ll have a wealth of people who have experience” in the needed technologies.

Powered landings will be essential on the airless moon, where parachutes, aerobraking, and wings are not an option for slowing down the craft. But even for use on Earth, this approach has advantages. Slowing the descent by rocket power instead of by friction–the method used by all existing manned rockets–can drastically reduce the need for heat shields, such as the space shuttle’s brittle and vulnerable thermal tiles.

The contest will be held at New Mexico’s Holliman Air Force Base, which is near the state’s planned spaceport. That port will ultimately house billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Construction is slated to start next year, and Branson hopes to begin offering tourist rides to space there in 2009. Virgin’s suborbital rockets, unlike those at the lunar challenge, will be taking off and landing horizontally, from an ordinary runway.

The winners of the Lunar Lander Challenge may have a chance to set their sights even higher. This Thursday, the X Prize Foundation, which sponsored the $10 million prize that led to the flight of SpaceShipOne three years ago, announced a new $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. The prize will be awarded to the first company that can send an unmanned rover to the moon, traverse 500 meters, and send back images to Earth, with no more than 10 percent government funding, by 2012. That’s six years before NASA plans a return to the moon.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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