X PRIZE lunar spacecraft competition flies into economic realities

lunar competitor

As if the technological challenges of building a spacecraft that can shuttle astronauts between the moon and the moon's orbit weren't challenging enough, this year the NASA/X PRIZE Lunar Lander Challenge is making competitors host  their own competition at a facility of their choice.

The Lunar Lander Challenge, which is a competition designed to accelerate technology reusable rocket-powered space vehicles, is administered for NASA by the X PRIZE Foundation at no charge to the space agency.  The prizes which amount to $1.65 million this year are funded by NASA.

X PRIZE said on its Web site, the concept of conducting a large common event at which all teams fly their vehicles is likely not financially sustainable for the Foundation going forward. Additionally, the conduct of such an event imposes non-negligible expenses on our teams, who must not only transport themselves and their vehicles to the venue for the competition, but who also must complete their design process, their regulatory paperwork, and their procurement of insurance with not only their own "home facility" but also the competition venue in mind.

According to X PRIZE, in the first two years of competition, the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge was tied to a larger event called the "X PRIZE Cup," an educational exposition bringing crowds in contact with rockets and with the entrepreneurial and inventive teams who design and operate them. In 2008, there was no X PRIZE Cup, so the Challenge was offered as a stand alone event. In all three years, the Challenge was offered at great expense to the X PRIZE Foundation, which receives no funding from NASA to conduct this competition.

The answer: the fairest and most sustainable model may prove to be one where each team plays host to a crew of Judges and X PRIZE personnel at a facility of their choice, X Prize stated. As a result the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge will be held as an open period of competition for flight attempts between July 1 and October 31, 2009.

The X PRIZE Foundation is committed to providing all teams a reasonable amount of time to prepare for the 2009 contest, and to adjust to any changes made to the way the prize is offered.

To win the prize, teams must demonstrate a rocket-propelled vehicle and payload that takes off vertically, climbs to a defined altitude, flies for a pre-determined amount of time, and then land vertically on a target that is a fixed distance from the launch pad. After landing, the vehicle must take off again within a predetermined time, fly for a certain amount of time and then land back on its original launch pad.

There are two levels of difficulty, with awards for first and second place at each level. Level 1 requires a vehicle to take off vertically from a designated launch area, climb to an altitude of at least 150 feet, remain aloft for at least 90 seconds while traveling horizontally to a landing pad 300 feet away, then land vertically.

The much more difficult Level 2 requires a vehicle to take off from a designated launch area, ascend to an altitude of 150 feet, hover for 180 seconds, then land precisely on a simulated, rocky, lunar surface 300 feet away. For both Levels 1 and 2, competing teams have the option to refuel their vehicle before conducting the required return level to the original starting point.

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