The future will take to the skies over New Mexico next month as teams compete in the Lunar Lander Challenge sponsored by NASA under their Centennial Challenges program.
This effort uses prize contests to stimulate creativity and competition in solar system exploration, tapping the talents of non-traditional sources of innovation in academia, industry and the public.
Teams of rocketeers are readying their vehicles for the Lunar Lander Challenge to be held live October 20-21 at the Las Cruces International Airport in southern New Mexico.
The Vertical Lander Challenge (VLC) and Lunar Lander Challenge (LLC) presented by NASA are designed to speed up the commercial development of a vehicle capable of ferrying cargo or humans back and forth between the surface of the Moon and low lunar orbit.
The complete Lunar Lander Challenge purse of $2,500,000 -- NASA's contribution is $2 million -- is divided into two levels. Level One is worth a total of $500,000. The more difficult Level Two is valued at a sum of $2,000,000.
Degree of difficulty
What has to happen to win prize money in either level?
A rocket-propelled vehicle with an assigned payload must takeoff vertically, climb to a defined altitude, fly for a pre-determined amount of time...then land vertically on a target that is a fixed distance from the liftoff point. After remaining at this location for a period of time, the vehicle must takeoff, fly for the same amount of time, and land again on its original launch pad.
The primary differences between the 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.
After the smoke clears, NASA's hope is that the prize will spur the design and fabrication of quick turnaround vertical take-off, vertical landing vehicles. That ability can help cultivate the commercial launch procurement market - not only for future operations on the Moon but here on Earth too.
"We are extremely impressed by the way that the teams have responded to our Challenge and built their vehicles literally from scratch in a matter of just a few months," said William Pomerantz, Director of Space Projects for the X Prize Foundation, headquartered in Santa Monica, California.
The Lunar Lander Challenge was first announced in May of this year, Pomerantz added, with several teams now signed up to fly their respective vehicles in October.
"The X Prize Cup is the ideal venue for this kind of prize. It's a unique event. I don't know of any other similar 'rocket show' in the world," Pomerantz told SPACE.com. "Planning and operating these events is a demanding and difficult task, and by collaborating with us, NASA can save the taxpayers money by taking advantage of the infrastructure we are building."
Level playing field
With only weeks away before the challenge, competitors are moving into high gear.
"We are looking pretty good," said John Carmack, chief rocketeer at Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas. His team has been busy at work readying hardware for qualification flights.
"The level 2 prize is quite challenging," Carmack said. "No rocket vehicle has ever been built that could complete it," underscoring the required length of flight, let alone refueling such a craft in the allotted time.
The real lunar lander, Carmack said, "even if it was equipped with an engine that could support its weight on Earth, wouldn't make the entire flight. That isn't to say that it requires a level of efficiency that hasn't been demonstrated before. [But] of the small list of vertical takeoff/vertical landing rockets that have actually flown, none of them would be able to do it."
Small and light vehicles
The Lunar Lander Challenge and the reduced duration of the Vertical Rocket Challenge
competitions are both very difficult pursuits, emphasized Richard Speck, President of Micro-Space, Incorporated of Denver, Colorado.
The Micro-Space efforts are restricted this year to the shorter duration, Vertical Rocket class, Speck noted. "This is not actually a limitation of the propulsion system, but of the 'rough surface' landing needs, and a few other factors which could not be developed in the available time."
Nevertheless, Speck's group plans to enter the long duration competition next year with a very similar vehicle, fitted with a larger cluster of fuel tanks, but having the same dimensions and only slightly greater empty weight.
The emphasis at Micro-Space has always been on the smallest and lightest vehicles usable for manned flight or unmanned research, Speck said.
Affordable space travel
Today, most space vehicles resemble flying submarines, Speck observed. "Jules Verne's "Nautilus" submarine could make undersea exploration pleasant, but it was Jack Cousteau's 'aqualung' which made it affordable," he said.
Since in virtually every way, space is less dangerous than undersea, Speck emphasized, similarly, minimized systems will make orbital and interplanetary space travel "affordable".
"Micro-Space efforts have included the development of operational, light-weight life
support, oxygen regeneration and water reprocessing systems which will drastically reduce the costs of even Mars missions," Speck predicted.
X Prize Chairman, Peter Diamandis, said the $2.5 million Lunar Lander Challenge will require a vehicle to mimic a trip between the Moon's surface, to lunar orbit and back to the lunar landscape.
"NASA's exploration vision calls for putting humans back on the Moon in the next decade. The vehicles to land on the Moon no longer exist," Diamandis observed. "We believe that entrepreneurial companies can build these lunar spaceships, and a Lunar Lander Challenge can stimulate the required technology in an efficient and rapid fashion."
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