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Armadillo Aerospace Crash ahead of Lander Challenge

Published by Rob on Wed Aug 22, 2007 6:52 pm
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Armadillo Aerospace is one of the front runners for the $2 million NASA competition to build mock lunar landers. The team lost one of their two main vehicles for the competition. Armadillo however are expected to still use one of their smaller crafts in the competition.

The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge is designed to spur innovation in future vehicles that could take off and land vertically on the Moon. The event will be held on 27 and 28 October at the X Prize Cup in Alamogordo, New Mexico, US. John Carmack’s Team nearly one the competition last time out.

With regards to this years competition Phil Eaton of Armadillo Aerospace told The Space Fellowship “If all the Permits get expedited, which I think they will, you will not only see Pixel attempt the L2 challenge, but a completely different configuration in the Module flying the L1 flights. It will still be better than last year to be sure! To add to that, AST has historically been extremely helpful at expediting paperwork when needed.”

The challenge has been split into two levels, the challenge is to have a vehicle lift of and hover for 90 or 180 seconds. The altitude must be at least 50 meters, the vehicle must land on a pad 100 meters away then return the flight again shortly after. If more than one vehicle completes this then there will be a reward for the vehicle doing this the most amount of times.

Armadillo has two main rockets, twin vehicles called Pixel and Texel. They had planned to enter the better-tested Pixel into the more difficult level 2 contest, which carries a top prize of $1 million, and it had planned to enter Texel into the $350,000 level 1 contest.

It was on Saturday that Texel burst into flames after crash landing during one of the team’s tests. Its fuel and liquid oxygen tanks were so damaged in the impact that it would be easier to build a new vehicle from scratch than to repair Texel, says Armadillo test team member Phil Eaton.

Post-crash analysis has been done since the accident and results have shown that the problem rose from the automatic shutdown (that should have triggered when Texel first touched down) did not occur. That’s because the computer was mistakenly told to expect a stronger signal from the touchdown sensor, beyond what it is actually capable of producing.

“It thought that it was plummeting to earth very quickly, so it fired the engine to reduce the speed,” Eaton said. “Well, it actually wasn’t going down, so this caused it to start going up very quickly.” John Carmack then had to trigger the manual shutdown for the vehicle.

Armadillo now plans to use an existing vehicle called Module 1 to vie for the prize. With two tanks compared to Texel’s four, Module 1 has less fuel capacity and cannot hover as long. But its makers say it is still capable of winning the level 1 prize.
“We ought to have things covered for the X Prize Cup for level 1 and level 2,” Eaton says.

Eaton told The Space Fellowship that “You will still get to see Pixel fly this year. All this means is that we are now under pressure to get the Permit to fly the single Module through the AST review process.”

Eaton further added that all three safety devices that were meant to work and reduce danger further stopping the vehicle flying out of control worked as expected. In all there were three almost simultaneous commands to shut the vehicle down, one from Carmack’s manual shutdown one from the computer and also one from another team member.

Armadillo Aerospace have emphasized that there were no injuries during the crash but the accident leading to three deaths at Scaled Composites come as a sharp reminder of the dangers involved in space flight. In an interview with New Scientist Phil Eaton said “We try as hard as we can to eliminate those [risks] so that our team members are safe, but it doesn’t eliminate every possibility of something catastrophic,”

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