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Lunar lander challengers

X Prize Foundation
An artist's conception shows a vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft's
flight path during a Lunar Lander Challenge scenario.

Four teams say they'll be competing for $2 million in the NASA-backed Lunar Lander Challenge at the X Prize Cup rocket festival in October. Two of those teams are already well-known, while the other two are dark horses in this race.

Details about the contest, the competitors and the X Prize Cup itself emerged this week from an environmental assessment distributed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The assessment will be available for public comment over the next month, and then the FAA is expected to follow up with a go-ahead for the X Prize Cup's premier event.

The Lunar Lander Challenge is aimed at promoting technologies that NASA could use for a next-generation moonship - a craft that could be cheaper and/or more capable than the Apollo era's lunar module.

There are actually two contests: The $500,000 "Vertical Lander" competition calls for teams to face off with spaceships capable of blasting off under remote control from one launch pad, rising to a height of at least 50 meters (164 feet) for 90 seconds, then landing on a level launch pad about 100 meters (330 feet) away. The $1.5 million "Lunar Lander" level calls for 180 seconds of flight time, with a landing on a sloped, rugged pad.

Since last October, when NASA's plans for the challenge first started coalescing, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace and California-based Masten Space Systems have been considered the favorites for both levels of the competition. Both companies say they're on track to have their landers ready for October, though not without hiccups.

For example, Dave Masten reported on his Web log today that his team's latest engine test ended with a rather unpleasant boom (or should that be bust?). And in his latest news update, Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack recounts the tilts and turns of his own testing - while also passing along the happy news that graphics-card maker NVidia will be sponsoring Armadillo's X Prize appearance.

The FAA document reveals that about 40 other teams voiced an interest in taking part, but only two of those teams have followed through. California-based Acuity Technology and Colorado-based Micro-Space both say they intend to field vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft during October's competition.

"We are putting together a vehicle for it," Acuity's president, Bob Clark, told me today. "Right now it's pretty intensive."

He said tests are proceeding on the craft's rocket engine, which uses peroxide and isopropinol as propellants.

Acuity has been in business since 1992, Clark said, but the rocket trade "is a new area for us."

"We primarily have done UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] development, sensor systems, navigation systems," he said. "We've had an interest in space system development for a while."

Clark said he didn't yet know whether Acuity would compete in both levels, or just in the less arduous Vertical Lander contest. In contrast, Micro-Space's president, Richard Speck, said his team was focusing entirely on the Vertical Lander level.

"Our effort has always been on the low end," he said. His team's spindly-legged rocket - which has a dry weight of less than 150 pounds, including its 55-pound payload -wouldn't meet the higher thrust requirements for the $1 million contest, he said.

Micro-Space was a competitor in the $10 million X Prize race that SpaceShipOne won back in 2004, and in the past Speck has talked about creating an "ultralight" spacecraft for human spaceflight. But Speck told me that his team's design for the Lunar Lander Challenge takes a simpler approach, drawing upon his years of experience with sounding rockets.

"This vehicle is an adaptation of that technology," he said.

Even if Micro-Space takes second prize in the $500,000 contest, that would bring Speck and his teammates $150,000 - a payoff he said would be "significant to us."

Speck said the money would fund the development of a more ambitious lander for the big prize next year. That is, assuming that Armadillo, Masten or Acuity doesn't make off with it this October.

Delve through the FAA's PDF document for more details about the October event - including plans for the Space Elevator Games, demonstrations of Orion Propulsion's asphalt-fueled rocket truck, hundreds of model-rocket launches ... and the likely need for earplugs.