NASA seeking fast moonbuggies and reliable lunar landers

NASA may have its eyes on the Sun and Mercury this week but it is clearly focusing on the moon for the future.

NASA is soliciting proposals from the scientific and aerospace communities for design ideas for its next lunar lander. NASA officials said the Altair spacecraft will deliver four astronauts to the lunar surface late during the next decade.

"By soliciting ideas and suggestions from industry and the science community, NASA hopes to foster a collaborative environment during this early design effort," said Jeff Hanley, Constellation Program manager in a statement. "Such collaboration will support the development of a safe, reliable and technologically sound vehicle for our crews."

According to NASA Altair will be capable of landing four astronauts on the moon, providing life support and a base for weeklong initial surface exploration missions, and returning the crew to the Orion spacecraft that will bring them home to Earth.

Altair will launch aboard an Ares V rocket into low Earth orbit, where it will rendezvous with the Orion crew vehicle.NASA is seeking responses in two primary areas before awarding a prime contract for lunar lander design, development, testing and evaluation. Those areas include an evaluation of NASA's current developmental concept and innovative safety improvements, and recommendations for industry-government partnerships.

In a statement NASA said it expects to award study contracts during this year's first quarter. A total of $1.5 million is available for awards, with the maximum individual award being $350,000. The contract performance period is six months.

NASA has already tapped MIT to lead a $375 million mission to map the moon and reconstruct its thermal history. The lunar gravity information will let any future manned or unmanned missions to land on the moon. Such data will be used to program the descent to the surface to avoid a crash landing and will also help target desirable landing sites, NASA said.

And while they won't be flying to the moon but rather flying around the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., the space agency has set April 4-5 as the dates for itsThe 15th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race.

The race is for high school and college teams where they build and race their lightweight, two-person lunar vehicles. More than 40 student teams from 18 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Canada and India have already registered.

Students are required to design a vehicle that addresses a series of engineering problems that are similar to problems faced by the original Moonbuggy team. The Apollo lunar roving vehicle became a two-person, four-wheeled vehicle. It was 10 feet 2 inches long, 44 inches high with a 7-foot 6-inch wheel base. It stood in stark contrast to the towering Saturn V Launch Vehicle. The lunar surface vehicle had large mesh wheels, antenna appendages, tool caddiesand cameras. The finished lunar rover weighed only about 450 pounds or just 75 pounds in the moon's one-sixth gravity. At the same time, the rover could carry up to about 1,000 Earth-pounds - more than twice its own weight, according to NASA.

According to NASA rules, each Moonbuggy will be human powered and carry two students, one female and one male, over a half-mile simulated lunar terrain course including "craters", rocks, "lava" ridges, inclines and "lunar" soil.Moonbuggy entries are expected to be of "proof-of-concept" and engineering test model nature, rather than final production models. Each student team of six members is responsible for building their own buggy, and the course drivers must also be builders of the vehicle, NASA said.

The teams must negotiate a simulated moon surface along a half-mile, obstacle-strewn course, racing their human-powered vehicles in time trials, rather than side by side.The three fastest-finishing moonbuggies in both the high school and college categories win prizes. Students can win additional awards for the most unique moonbuggy design, best overall design, most improved team, best rookie team and most spirited team.

The deadline for registration is Feb. 1. Information concerning the competition is available at http://moonbuggy.msfc.nasa.gov

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