Written for Newscientist.com about the first decent new space
competition; the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge of 2009.
Subedited in house by Newscientist.com
Mock lunar landers set to compete for $1 million
Over the coming weeks, three teams will try to complete the second and
final stage of the Lunar
(LLC), sponsored by NASA and aerospace
company Northrop Grumman.
Last October, Armadillo Aerospace
of Texas won level one of the challenge
and $350,000 by building a rocket that made two 90-second flights,
reaching an altitude of 50 metres, between flat concrete pads 100
metres apart. On Saturday, they will be aiming for the million-dollar
prize for the more challenging level two.
aim this time is to complete two flights, each lasting 3 minutes. If it
can stay aloft in Earth's gravity for that long, the vehicle would have
enough power to take off from the surface of the moon and go into lunar
vehicle also has to land on a rough landscape, akin to a lunar landing
site. Armadillo created their mock moonscapes at Caddo Mills airfield
in Texas, using rocks and gravel.
Armadillo's vehicle, the Super
is propelled by a rocket engine burning a blend of liquid oxygen and
alcohol. Like the Apollo landers, it is steered by changing the angle
of the main engine.
Super Mod is the largest of the vehicles in the contest and, if flown
at full power, should be able to reach an altitude of 100 kilometres –
sometimes considered the edge of space. The technology is modular, so
several Super Mods could be bolted together to make a more powerful
vehicle. According to Armadillo's John Carmack, six of them put
together could complete the lunar lander challenge with a pilot on
Before the end of October, Masten
, both based in California, will also be vying to win
are following a similar approach with their XA 0.1B, nicknamed Xombie,
which uses the same fuel and method of steering (see image
is a technology demonstrator for larger vehicles that Masten hopes to
start flying next year, with the long-term goal of providing cheap
suborbital launch services for scientific missions and space tourists.
Unreasonable Rocket is a much smaller team, consisting of
father and son Paul T Breed and Paul A Breed. Their vehicle, the Blue
is powered by hydrogen peroxide, which produces thrust as it decomposes
to steam and oxygen when passed through a silver mesh (see image
just a single propellant, the rocket needs only one tank and control
valve, much simpler than dealing with two liquids that burn together.
It can also be stopped and started easily and is very reliable, but on
the downside, the performance of hydrogen peroxide is only about 60 per
cent of what can be achieved with two liquids.
the Blue Ball is just over 1.5 metres high – much smaller than its
competitors and therefore further from a human-scale lander – it could
form the basis of lunar probes.
NASA's sponsorship of the prize is not directly connected to
their plans, still
, for a return to the moon. "The LLC was never
intended to develop technologies for actual lunar landing," Carmack
told New Scientist
. Instead, the hope is that it
will encourage the development of new