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Team LunaTrex Talk to the Space Fellowship about the Google Lunar X-Prize

Published by Rob on Mon Mar 31, 2008 7:07 am
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I recently spoke with Pete Bitar, the LunaTrex team leader. LunaTrex are a team that I have been paying special attention to after seeing their concept vehicle design. Their concept video caught my imagination as their craft appeared to head to the Moon using an Ion engine (See image to the left)

During the Google Lunar X-Prize Team announcement Pete said that LunaTrex didn’t just want to go the Moon but they wanted to create an affordable, repeatable and sustainable space business. They also plan to create mini competitions to do certain elements of what they are doing. I contacted Pete and he was very open in answering my questions. My questions were broken down into four categories, Ion Propulsion, the Rover, the Rocket and lastly a General category.

My first question to Pete was regarding that “Blue Glow” I had seen behind their craft in the concept video. I asked him why they had chosen Ion Propulsion. Pete’s response was:

We are not necessarily choosing ion propulsion, but likely either that or Hall effect thrusters, or some form of electric propulsion. The biggest reason is weight. This will cut the fuel weight requirements for the spacecraft by 2/3 or more. The trade-off is that it will be a lot slower – months instead of days. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. With more time in increasing orbits around Earth, data and imagery from our spacecraft can be utilized by multiple customers while we are on our way to the Moon. Thus, we reduce weight, costs (both launch and otherwise), and increase our profit potential with the mission.

Something that played on my mind was the experience needed to build a working propulsion system of this kind. Ion propulsion for one is used a lot less than other propulsion systems and we haven’t seen a great interest in it from the private sector. Asked about the experience needed from his team Pete tells me “We are already in touch with a few electric thrusters manufacturing companies that provide off-the-shelf components; we don’t need or want to develop something like this from scratch.

Talking with one team recently I was surprised to see that their attitude was to win the money then “have the last person out the door switch the lights off on their way out”. I found a quote from LunaTrex which said “We are intending to set up a small-sat launch system and program regardless of Google Lunar X PRIZE, but the Google Lunar X PRIZE effort will certainly bring credibility to that effort”. I was glad to see that these guys wanted more than just the winnings from the Google Lunar X-Prize so I asked Pete if this was more than a prize, he tells me:

Absolutely. We started the beginnings of what is now Team LunaTrex with the idea of launching and running turn-key mission operations for very small satellites. When the GLXP opportunity came up, we decided as a team that this was not too much more of a stretch from what we were already setting up.

Frankly, we believe that if we can successfully launch and maintain an orbit of the Moon with our craft, we will have built the credibility needed to build a successful business, whether we win the prize or not. We are, of course, going to make every effort to land the rover on the Moon and win the Prize, but the modules with which we are stepping our way there will have inherent value on their own, and again, will build needed Team credibility to achieve a diversity of other mission successes.

Moving on to discussing their rover i had recently seen a quote which made me wonder if they inteneded to win the additional bonus prizes. The quote was “Regarding additional equipment, we will likely include some form of sensor to detect frozen water on the lunar surface”.

Pete explained “We will make every attempt to win other bonus prizes, but only if it makes sense within the parameters of the time we have to launch and the mission structure. Again, our focus is really to build credibility for a long-term business, not to take too many risks if they will interfere with that focus

This quote fits in with John Carmack’s recent sentiments. John recently talked about the Lunar Lander Challenge saying once a year presentations are the worst thing for a technical challenge and that it adds pressure for tough decisions that can distract from main commercial goals.

Lunatrex had also recently been quoted as suggesting they will launch as many as 4 rovers to the moon. I asked Pete if this was true and if this would be something done with one rocket or several. Pete tells me that they think it is possible to launch multiple small rovers in one single landing package. He later adds that it will give them a better chance of having one survive and it could lead to them pursuing bonuses.

Moving on to the rocket I asked about progress, i was informed that:

We are forging a relationship with a few other propulsion companies, one of which is a Team member, and another of which is considering joining the team. Both have experience in rocketry, and will be very helpful as we pursue the longer-term business model. However, for the GLXP launch, it is likely we will tap a larger launch provider, possibly Space-X, the GLXP Preferred Provider, but we are still looking.

I asked Pete if LunaTrex planned on working in an open manner, keeping supporters updated and keeping a good media profile. Pete says

Most certainly. We have already posted news of our sponsorship of the University of Dayton UDART Team, and will be showing progress videos of their work on a high-altitude launch vehicle. Though this may not help us directly with our GLXP efforts, it is important to show how our Team’s outreach efforts are impacting the aerospace community in relevant ways.

We are also in discussions with several robotics teams, which we may also sponsor, and their outputs may be directly tied to what we send to the Moon. As we develop these relationships, and as those teams develop technology for us, I’m certain we will be able to share that when the time comes.

Pete later informs me that the team will be happy to share their concepts and images as they become clearer. He also adds that there will be a lot more to share later on in the year.

At the start of the story I mentioned how LunaTrex planned on creating mini-prizes. Following this up Lunatrex have said “We may also sponsor a sort of “mini-X-Prize” to award robotics teams to help us build a proof-of-concept rover which will ultimately be made suitable for the lunar surface”. Asked for more details Pete explains the bennefits of prizes.

From an outreach perspective, the benefits are obvious: competition drives innovation, and in an educational environment, creative, scientific thinking is what makes science and math exciting and relevant, and hopefully something we can help spark more interest in – even it is in a small way. We are going to be working with education experts to develop this “mini-prize” competition so that it makes the most positive impact possible.

I finished off asking some more general questions, firstly what research had been done into potential markets enlight of their goal to sustain a business after the prize is on. Pete tells me “Members of our Team, collectively, have a very, very good grasp on the potential market. Again, we went into this with an eye to the future, purely based on that future’s potential market.

Asked about timeframes i was told that they would like to launch in 2011 but late 2010 may be a possibility.

More on LunaTrex
LunaTrex was formed in 2008 as a team comprising several individuals, companies, and universities from all over the country who bring the needed skills, talents, vision, and experience together to pursue the noble goals set out by the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

Each company brings its own history to the mix, including rocket science, high-altitude near-space R&D, defense directed-energy technology, aviation design and development, robotics, trajectories, and nonconventional propulsion expertise. Blended with a successful entrepreneurship track record, we believe the hundreds of years of experience possessed by the team will improve our chances for success in this pursuit.

Read other articles from The International Space Fellowship’s Google Lunar X-Prize series below.

Team Italia talk to the Space Fellowship about the Google Lunar X-Prize

Team Cringely Talks to the Space Fellowship about winning the Google Lunar X-Prize

Team FREDNET Talk to the Space Fellowship about the Google Lunar X-Prize

InterPlanetary Ventures talk to the ISF about Registering for the Google Lunar X-Prize

Also find the Official Micro-Space Forum

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