Romania Targets Moon with Balloon-Launched Ball
Google Lunar X Prize contender ARCA plans to land a simple sphere on the moon.
Credit: Asociatia Romana

Nearly 40 years after Americans first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 with NASA's historic Apollo 11 flight, a host of private rocketeers are hoping to follow to win a $30 million prize. Here, SPACE.com looks at ARCA, one of 17 teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize:

Former X Prize contenders such as the Romanian team ARCA could have called it a day when Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004. Instead, ARCA hopes to build on its previous effort to reach the moon and win the Google Lunar X Prize and even more prize money.

"We have the experience now, we have the know-how, we have a list of companies that can help us, we have connections," said Bogdan Sburlea, ARCA (Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association) project manager. "We already have some technology from the previous competition."

That tested technology includes a balloon that can carry ARCA's European Lunar Explorer (ELE) space probe into the upper atmosphere, eliminating the need for a traditional launch pad and allowing ARCA to launch close to the equator from a sea platform. The "0" pressure balloon design is similar to a giant black hot-air balloon that uses solar energy to heat the air inside, instead of the burner that normal hot-air balloons use.

Once the balloon soars above 11 miles (18 km), the three-stage rocket slung below will fire and boost itself into low Earth orbit. ELE will then travel to the moon and deploy its Lunar Lander, which resembles a knobby rubber ball that uses its own rocket engine to ensure a soft landing.

The Google Lunar X Prize requires teams to land a robot on the moon, move at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and beam high definition views back to Earth. ARCA's round lander would skim the lunar surface using its rocket engine.

Unlike some teams with plans for lunar rovers or crawlers, ARCA sprang for the easiest lunar lander they could design. The team's focus is on getting to the moon, as opposed to what happens once they get there.

"Our design for the lander is extremely simple, it's a sphere," Sburlea said. "It's too complicated, too expensive to build a robot."

ARCA completed propulsion tests of its STABILO hybrid rocket launcher in March, as part of its switch from single propellant propulsion. Team leader Dumitru Popescu also suffered health problems that led the team to delay its initial planned launch last fall.

The issue of expense hangs over all the teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. ARCA has lined up private sponsors within Romania for different parts of the effort, such as fuel and materials, and is confident that it can accomplish its goals fairly cheaply.

Most members of the ARCA team have volunteered their time for the effort, heeding the call of team leader Dumitru Popescu to promote Romanian space efforts. The nonprofit group may not draw much financial support from the Romanian government, but that's the entire point — to blaze the way for future private space endeavors.

"We won't use $30 million," Sburlea noted, referring to the total awards purse for the Lunar X Prize. "We know for sure that it's going to be much less from previous experience, previous launches."

The $30 million Google Lunar X Prize breaks down into a $20 million grand prize for first place, $5 million for second place, and an additional $5 million bonus. By comparison, the Ansari X Prize that ARCA was previously aiming for an awarded $10 million.

Sburlea said he had expected the next X Prize to build on the Ansari X Prize by asking teams to put a man into orbit. However, he added that the Google Lunar X Prize goal may actually ease some of the pressure on the competitors.

"We are not talking about manned spaceflight," Sburlea said. "If something goes wrong, so what? Nobody dies."

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