Lunar spacecraft compete for $2 million NASA prize

Nine rocket-powered vehicles will compete for NASA's $2 million, 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, Oct. 24-25.

The goal is to accelerate development of commercial Lunar Landers capable of bringing payloads or humans back and forth between lunar orbit and the lunar surface. NASA of course would expect to use some of the technology developed at the Challenge.

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.

Although the competition, which is managed by the X Prize Foundation at no cost to NASA, is not open to the public, the event will be webcast live at According to the X Prize Web site, the teams this year include:

  • 1. Acuity Technologies is based in Menlo Park, California. The team is a returning competitor, and plans to compete in both Levels One and Two with their Hop & Hover Vehicles. Founded in 1992, Acuity Technologies also develops, manufactures, and supports specialized unmanned aerial systems for defense and commercial applications.
  • 2. Armadillo Aerospace, based in Mesquite Texas, is a veteran of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, as the only team to have flown a vehicle in the competition, at both the 2006 and 2007 X Prize Cup. Founded in 2000, they were until recently an all-volunteer crew, working towards the development of reusable rocket powered vehicles, led by John Carmack, 3D graphics pioneer and video game developer.
  • 3. BonNova, a design firm in Tarzana, CA specializing in innovative invention and engineering for aerospace and all industries, is one of the veteran competitors of the Lunar Lander challenge. The rocket team, led by Allen Newcomb, was established for the sole purpose of winning the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. They currently have six members: a Chief Engineer, GNC Aerospace Engineer, Computer Engineer, Creative Director, Machinist Engineer, and Pit Crew Member. The team mascot is a rocket dog named Sky.
  • 4. High Expectations is based in Moscow, Idaho, and led by Keith Stormo. With a small team of four people who have worked together on other projects, high Expectations plans to compete for the first time in both levels of the competition.
  • 5. Paragon Labs, from Denver, CO, is composed of industry professionals from a number of subsystem disciplines, molded into a "skunk-works" environment to ensure rapid prototyping and development. Paragon team members have backgrounds in aerospace, manufacturing, controls design, software engineering, electronics design, custom fabrication, and program management.
  • 6. Team Phoenicia is group of individuals in Emeryville, CA who have come together to answer the call to open up and explore the cosmos. Their first step is the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Their hope that this challenge will allow them to develop technology that is needed for the ultimate goal of landing packages on the Moon and other bodies. By building a scalable and semimodular design, Team Phoenicia is tackling the Challenge in a manner that allows the follow-on development of landers with potential commercial application.
  • 7. Seraphim Works: there was no information on this team. Which makes one wonder how well they will compete!
  • 8. TrueZer0 is a four person team in Chicago that consists of a mechanical engineer, an electrical/CS engineer, and a father and son who own and operate a machine shop. For the past few years, they have worked together on a number of projects, getting larger and more complex each time.
  • 9. Unreasonable Rocket is developing two vehicles to compete in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in 2008. Unreasonable Rocket is a small father and son team located in Solana Beach, CA. The team tests their vehicles in the Cohen dry lake bed or the F.A.R. Rocket Test Facilities near Cantil, CA.

In the 2007 competition, held as part of the X PRIZE Cup, there were nine competitors total. However, despite the best efforts of all of the teams, only one of them, Armadillo Aerospace, was ready to fly. They missed winning Level 1 by 7 seconds.

The X Prize Foundation and Google this year announced the first ten teams to register for the Google Lunar X Prize, the groups' robot race to the moon worth $30 million in prizes. The international group of widely diverse teams will compete to land a privately funded robotic craft on the Moon that is capable of roaming the lunar surface for at least 1,600 feet and sending video, images and data back to the Earth. Since the competition was first announced six months ago, 567 potential teams from 53 countries have requested registration information, the foundation said.

In related news, NASA recently said its spaceship successfully completed a series of stress-inducing tests to ensure it can make the rugged flight to the moon where it is expected to map the lunar surface in preparation for manned moon missions planned to take off by 2020.

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