Despite Setbacks, Teams Set Sights On Lunar Lander Purse
Pixel took flight multiple times during the Wirefly X Prize Cup held October 20 & 21, with the Armadillo Aerospace craft nearly winning major NASA prize money in a Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Image
Credit: Armadillo Aerospace

Rival space groups are vowing to push forward on vertical takeoff and landing rocket technology to vie for prize money in a NASA-sponsored lunar lander prototype competition.

Last week's Wirefly X Prize Cup held in Las Cruces, New Mexico saw multiple flights of just one craft trying to snag a chunk of a $2 million purse under NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

Flying its rocket-propelled "Pixel", lone contestant, Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, made repeat attempts to claim a cash award--only to be thwarted by landing difficulties and related hardware woes. [see video]

While Armadillo Aerospace rocketeers left empty handed, they are keen on re-flying at the 2007 Cup. But given the intervening year, other teams are likely to enter flight vehicles too.

On the levels

The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge rules call for a rocket-propelled craft with an assigned payload to climb vertically, reach a defined altitude, fly for a pre-determined amount of time and then vertically land on a target that is a fixed distance from the liftoff point.

After remaining at that spot for a period of time, the vehicle must re-fly, stay aloft for the same amount of time, then land again on its original launch pad.

There are two distinct levels to the challenge.

The primary differences between a Vertical Lander Challenge and the Lunar Lander Challenge are the minimum time of flight (90 seconds versus 180 seconds); the surface terrain at the landing sites (flat compared to rocky); and the degree of difficulty presented for precision landing.

For both Level One and Level Two, the vehicle has the option to refuel before conducting the required return level to the original starting point.

Square and tight

"I don't have any complaints about the way the event was handled, once the fundamental decisions were made," Carmack told SPACE.com. "It would be a lot better for us if it wasn't tied to an event...because we would be able to go try again next week after engineering some much better landing gear and getting an accurate [landing pad] survey."

Undaunted by problems experienced during Pixel's flights, Carmack is resigned to claim X Prize Cup money.

"We could have won this year with a little good luck, but by next year we will be so well prepared that it would take crushing bad luck to keep us from winning," Carmack emphasized.

"We flew great...we just didn't land so well," Carmack also recounted on his company's website.

Following Pixel's last flight at the Cup--veering off course into the ground just after liftoff--Carmack considered it "down for the count"--no longer to be flown. But on closer examination, Pixel may not be dead after all--and a twin craft, Texel, is also flight ready.

"The tanks and frame [of Pixel] still seem square and tight. We are going to hydrotest everything, and possibly re-weld the computer mounting points and the other things that are broken," he reported. "I still want to do side-by-side vertical drag racing demos with the pair of vehicles."

Carmack related that his "official bet" is that there will be no more than one other competitor next year, "and it may well just be Armadillo again," Carmack reported.

Hover tests

Another group, Masten Space Systems of Santa Clara, California is the closest to being flight qualified, Carmack suggested, "but they still need to fly their very first test vehicle, then design, build, and test a more potent vehicle to even be able to compete for the Level One prize."

Both financial and engineering hurdles prevented the Masten group opposing Armadillo in this year's Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. But they are now marching ahead in readying their flight hardware.

"Our flying test platform, XA 0.1, should be doing its first hover tests in the next few weeks at our test area at Mojave Airport [in California]," said Masten's Michael Mealling, Vice President for Business Development.

"Once we have put it through its paces and figured out how to break it we will finish assembly on XA 0.2 ... which would have been our Lunar Lander Challenge Level One vehicle," he told SPACE.com.

Accelerated timelines

After XA 0.1's first test flight in the next few weeks, Mealling said that the group will be flying that hardware on a regular basis--both for the practice and to try out various potential failure modes such as loss of the vehicle network, stuck valves, as well as pressure failures.

"Masten Space has always been about building a business carrying payloads and people into suborbital space. That means we were always going to build something like the Lunar Lander Challenge vehicles, it was just a matter of when," Mealling added.

In trying to meet the deadline of taking part in this year's Lunar Lander Challenge, Masten Space Systems accelerated their timelines by almost a year.

"As many in this business will tell you, though, the largest hurdles often aren't technical. They're financial and regulatory," Mealling noted. "That means we are actively looking for sponsors and financial partners to come along for the ride."