Top Contender for Lunar Lander Prize Crashes
Armadillo Aerospace patch for Lunar Lander Challenge. Image
Credit: Armadillo Aerospace

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico -- The third time was not the charm for homebuilt hardware designed to win a Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

A privately-built vertical takeoff and landing rocket shot for NASA Moon money today but failed at the Wirefly X Prize Cup--an expo of private rocketeers devoted to personal space travel.

Called Pixel, the craft quickly tipped over and crashed shortly after liftoff. An onboard fire was quickly doused.

The apparent cause of the mishap was a jerry-rigged launch support for the craft that had to be built when the vehicle broke one of its landing legs in an earlier flight.

That makeshift support was disturbed when the rocket's engines ignited. The vehicle rose up at an angle, causing onboard abort sensors to shut down the propulsion system. Pixel then fell over sharply and hit the ground.

Pixel is the product of space entrepreneur John Carmack and his fellow rocketeers at Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas.

A computer gaming wizard, Carmack is co-founder and chief technical engineer of id Software.

Down for the count

"Pixel is probably not going to fly again," Carmack said in a post-crash interview. "It's down for the count."

The vehicle ran well earlier today, blasting up into the sky, hovering, and then translated itself under remote control for a touchdown on a landing pad. That flight was the first in a two-part run to win a $350,000 prize.

The Pixel ran into problems attempting to repeat its flight successfully to earn the prize money.

On Friday, the same craft was damaged on landing after achieving a smooth flight through the air. Pixel engineers worked overnight to make the two fights today.

The Cup has been a two day event, held here October 20-21 at the Las Cruces International Airport.

Part of the festivities was the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Money was offered by NASA under its Centennial Challenges program - a space agency initiative that promotes technical innovation through a novel program of prize contests.

Overall, some $2 million in Lunar Lander Challenge prize money--subdivided into levels of achievement--remains unclaimed. Rocket teams, including Armadillo Aerospace, are expected to compete in next year's Cup.