Headlines > News > Four Private Space Companies Vie for $1+ Million Prize

Four Private Space Companies Vie for $1+ Million Prize

Published by Rob Goldsmith on Sat Oct 24, 2009 7:37 am
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PLAYA VISTA, CA — 10/23/09 — The race for the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge (NGLLC) incentivized prize purse, funded by NASA and presented by the X PRIZE Foundation, is coming down to the wire. As the competition end date (Oct. 31) draws near, teams will descend upon the Mojave Desert in a head-to-head showdown to compete for portions of the remaining $1.65 million prize purse. Officials have confirmed that at least $1.15 million will be awarded this year to a minimum of two of the four NGLLC teams. This will be the largest incentivized prize awarded by the X PRIZE Foundation since the 2004 Ansari X PRIZE competition.

“The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge has turned into a real horse-race. There is $1.65 million up for grabs that will be decided in the next 10 days,” said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation. “It is getting very exciting and is worth everyone watching. The ultimate winners will be all of the teams in this emerging industry, NASA and the space-passionate public.”

The Armadillo Aerospace Team and there Scorpius Super Mod. Credit:Jeff Foust

The Armadillo Aerospace Team and there Scorpius Super Mod. Credit:Jeff Foust

The NGLLC is comprised of two levels; each level includes both first and second place prizes. The $350,000 first-place prize for Level 1 went to Armadillo Aerospace at last year’s competition. The remaining prizes include the second-place prize for Level 1 worth $150,000, and the two prizes for Level 2 worth $1 million and $500,000.

“When this prize was first announced, there was hardly any work being done in this important field of rocketry,” noted William Pomerantz, Senior Director of Space Prizes of the X PRIZE Foundation. “To have a situation where we are judging back-to-back-to-back launch attempts by three different teams, especially on the heels of the impressive flights put on by Armadillo, Masten, and TrueZer0 previously, is absolutely astounding. We are witnessing the birth of a new sector of the industry, and NASA, the US government, and private customers are all going to benefit.”

On Sept. 12, Armadillo Aerospace, led by id Software founder John Carmack, successfully completed the requirements for the Level 2 NGLLC prize purse. The criterion for Level 2 requires the rocket to simulate a full lunar lander mission. The flight profile must closely simulate the task of descending from lunar orbit to the lunar surface, refueling and returning to lunar orbit. To match the performance of such a mission here on Earth, the vehicle must ascend to a height of 50 meters, translate horizontally to a landing pad 50 meters away, land safely on a rocky lunar-replica surface after at least 180 seconds of flight time and then repeat the flight by returning to the original launch site. The Armadillo team flew its lunar lander rocket vehicle, “Scorpius,” twice in two hours, flying between a pair of landing pads to qualify for the top prize. The two flights of Scorpius, which weighs about 1900 pounds when fully loaded with its ethanol and liquid oxygen propellant, launched from the Caddo Mills Municipal Airport in Texas, where Armadillo Aerospace’s facilities are based.

On Oct. 26, BonNovA, led by Allen Newcomb, will attempt to qualify for the second place prize of the Level 1 portion of the NGLLC. BonNovA’s vehicle, Lauryad 1, will launch from Cantil, California using propane and N2O as its propellant. The requirements of Level 1 of the competition challenge teams to simulate a lunar mission and complete two successful flights, with the rocket rising to 50 meters, translating over to a second landing pad, and remaining in the air for at least 90 seconds. The following day, BonNovA will attempt to successfully complete the requirements of Level 2 of the NGLLC with its Lauryad 2 vehicle.

On Oct. 28 and 29, Masten Space Systems, directed by David Masten, will attempt to complete the requirements for the Level 2 mission, which would also put them in the running for the $1 million prize. The team’s rocket, XA0.1E, also called “Xoie,” weighs about 850 pounds when fully loaded with its isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and liquid oxygen propellant. It will launch from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. On Oct. 7, the Masten team completed the requirements of Level 1 of the NGLLC qualifying for the second-place prize of $150,000. The rocket launch was their second attempt at a Level 1 challenge as the team made an effort on Sept. 16.

Also in the race is Unreasonable Rocket, a father and son team managed by Paul Breed. The Unreasonable team will attempt the Level 1 portion of the challenge on Oct. 30 with its “Burning Splinter 90″ rocket, also called “the blue ball.” They will be launching from Cantil, California. On Oct. 31, the Unreasonable team will make its first attempt at the Level 2 portion of the challenge with its “Burning Splinter 180″ vehicle, also called “the silver ball.” Both lunar lander vehicles use a Hydrogen Peroxide bipropellant as the propellant. October 31 is the final day available for flights this year. Should any prize money remain after these attempts, teams will need to wait until 2010, the final year of the program, to try again.

The ultimate goal of the NGLLC is to inspire entrepreneurs who can enable a new era of commercial exploration. These milestone events within the privately funded space sector continue to demonstrate the value of prizes and how they stimulate innovation. The successful flights from all of the private space companies continue to underscore the report to President Obama by the Augustine Commission, which called for increased commercial sector participation both in orbital operations and NASA’s efforts to reach the Moon by 2020. Now, more than ever the time is right for private industry to supply NASA with hardware and services to enable suborbital, orbital, and lunar exploration.

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