UPDATE: Story first posted 12:37 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES, California -- A Lunar Lander Analog Challenge is being spearheaded by NASA and the X Prize Foundation--a $2.5 million dollar NASA Centennial Challenge dedicated to enhancing the space agency's return to the Moon effort.

Details of the challenge were outlined here today by NASA's Deputy Administrator Shana Dale at the International Space Development Conference. X Prize Chairman, Peter Diamandis presented the rules and officially opened the competition for team registration.

"NASA's contribution to the Lunar Lander analog challenge is $2 million. This is the most significant investment yet, in terms of prizes that we're doing under the Centennial Challenges," Dale told SPACE.com.

Dale said that NASA is looking at ways the space agency can tap into innovation in the private sector. That means working with traditional aerospace, entrepreneurial companies involved in aerospace, as well as high-tech firms that have no business at all with NASA, she added.

Nice marriage

"In the case of this competition, it is really a marriage of the kind of rockets, the kind of landing systems we need for the return to the Moon," said Brant Sponberg, Program Manager of Centennial Challenges at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"We're also trying to tap into some of the suborbital guys that are interested in vertical takeoff, vertical landing. It's a nice marriage," Sponberg told SPACE.com.

For example, John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace as well as the tight-lipped Blue Origin company bankrolled by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, are both working on vertical launch and landing vehicles.

Repeat the feat

The idea is to have competing teams demonstrating their vehicle's ability to launch vertically, hover in mid-air, land on a target more than 100 yards away and then repeat the feat.

The $2.5M Lunar Lander Challenge will require a vehicle to simulate a trip between the Moon and low Moon orbit. The competition is divided into two courses. The more difficult of the courses--level 2--requires a vehicle to take off from a designated launch area and elevate to at least 50 meters. It must then fly for at least 180 seconds before landing precisely in an area simulating a rocky lunar surface 100 meters away.

The vehicle has the option to refuel before repeating the requirements of the first leg while traveling back to the original launch area. The less difficult of the two courses, level 1, requires a minimum flight time of 90 seconds and has a flat even surface on which to land and refuel.

NASA and the X Prize Foundation have signed a Space Act Agreement to formalize their collaboration on a Lunar Lander Challenge.

The Space Act Agreement states that the X Prize Foundation, which provided the catalyst for the recent explosion in private spaceflight companies with the Ansari X Prize, will administer and execute the competitions at no cost to NASA.

NASA will provide prize funding to the winning contestants.

Novel program

The Lunar Lander Challenge will be held at the X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico, starting in October 18-21 of this year.

NASA's Centennial Challenges promotes technical innovation through a novel program of prize competitions. It is designed to tap the nation's ingenuity to make revolutionary advances to support the Vision for Space Exploration and NASA goals. NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate manages the program.

In 2004, the Ansari X Prize proved that offering a prize is an effective, efficient and economical model for acceleration breakthroughs in science and technology. Based on that success, the X Prize Foundation is now expanding their efforts to offer more prizes in the space industry, as well as, in the areas of health, energy, transportation, and education.

More prizes to come

NASA's Sponberg said there are other Centennial Challenges in the offing--perhaps attached to even larger prize dollars.

Some things that might evolve in the future, Sponberg said, are other rocket competitions especially in the non-toxic reusable rocket arena. Also, a lunar rover - akin to that used by Apollo moonwalkers--could make for an interesting competition, he said.

"Eventually, we'd like to ramp up to something like a prize for a full space mission," Sponberg said, such as a lunar landing purse involving privately-backed delivery of a payload onto the Moon.

For more information about NASA's Centennial Challenges, visit: http://centennialchallenges.nasa.gov

Leonard David is a Senior Space Writer for SPACE.com and the former editor of Ad Astra, the official magazine of the National Space Society

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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