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Lunar lander lineup

The organizers of this year's $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge have just unveiled an upgraded Web site that tells everything the competitors want you to know about their rocket-powered hovercrafts.

Sometimes that's not much. In fact, one of the nine listed teams is going totally incognito for the time being. But the other eight provide at least some hints of what they're up to. For the record, those eight have been mentioned as likely entrants, but this is the first time the official list has been revealed.

The lineup includes Acuity Technologies, Armadillo Aerospace, BonNova, Masten Space Systems, Micro-Space, Paragon Labs, Speed Up and Unreasonable Rocket.

Armadillo was the only entrant in last year's challenge, although Masten, Acuity and Micro-Space all made an effort to join the fray. BonNova, Speed Up and Unreasonable Rocket are among this year's first-time entrants. And if you're looking for any surprise, you'd have to cast a glance in Paragon Labs' direction: Even though Armadillo is widely seen as this year's front-runner, the X Prize Foundation's Will Pomerantz says Armadillo team leader John Carmack isn't taking Paragon (or the other competitors, for that matter) for granted.

"He sees some of these teams charging up in the rear view mirror, and Paragon is one of them," Pomerantz told me a few days ago.

The X Prize Foundation is in charge of putting on the rocket show this October at the Wirefly X Prize Cup in New Mexico, just as it was last year. This time around, Pomerantz has a whole year to prepare for the Lunar Lander Challenge - and he's breathing a lot easier than he was last June.

"We're in so much better shape than we were last time," he said.

The biggest regulatory hurdle ahead has to do with permission to launch: Each team that's serious about competing will have to get an experimental permit from the Federal Aviation Administration. In fact, the rules say that the teams should have that permit 30 days ahead of the Oct. 26-28 event, although the judges might be willing to bend those rules. (They did last year.)

Because it can take up to 120 days for the FAA to rule on the permit, the teams should already have turned in their completed applications to be assured that time won't run out. And that's no mean trick.

"We have a couple of teams that met that mark, which is really great news," Pomerantz said.

The bottom line is that the Lunar Lander Challenge is shaping up as more than a one-horse race, as we discussed last week. The basic rules are the same as they were last year: To have any chance of winning a prize, a team will have to get its remote-controlled rocket ship to lift off from one pad, hover at least 50 meters high, touch down at a destination pad 100 meters away, fuel up again, then make the return trip - all within 150 minutes.

In the Level 1 competition, the minimum hover time is 90 seconds, and the destination pad is nice and level. In the Level 2 competition, 180 seconds of hovering is required, and the destination is a rocky, rugged spot much like a lunar landscape. The Level 1 prizes, provided under NASA's Centennial Challenges program, are $350,000 for first and $150,000 for second. For Level 2, NASA's prescribed payoff rises to $1 million for first, $500,000 for second.

So what happens if two teams fly the course successfully? That could get complicated. "When I wrote the tie-breaker, I never really expected it to come into play," Pomerantz admitted.

Each successful team would get another 150-minute time period, but this time the team would have to fly its craft between Point A and Point B as many times as it can. The winners would be decided on the basis of who has the most hops.

"It's really going to be a race between those two pads. ... They could probably do four or five flights. It could very intensive. It's so exciting that we can talk about that," Pomerantz said.

If teams are still tied after that fly-off, the judges would go back and measure how close each landing came to the target point on the pad. The team that, on average, came the closest would be declared the first-prize winner. But if it's still a tie, the teams that were deadlocked would split the money.

The purpose behind the exercise - and the reason why NASA is putting up the prize purse - is to encourage rocket-powered innovation that could someday come into play during the drive back to the moon and beyond. That's why Northrop Grumman, which built the Apollo-era lunar lander, is providing the sponsorship money for the contest. And that's also the big picture that Pomerantz has in mind as he continues to prepare for this year's contest.

But you also get a sense that he has his heart set on a really, really big show.

"There's going to be that element of drama that was there in a lesser form last year," he said. "There's that drama, and wondering who's going to win the check. It's as close to a guarantee as you're going to get that money is going to be given out this year."

Check out the Web site (including the head-to-head matchups and the links to lunar-lander games), and let me know how you'd handicap the Great Lunar Lander Race (or who's behind the mysterious ninth team). If you're looking for additional tips, you can study The Space Review and browse through the past and present blog entries at Space Prizes, RLV and Space Transport News and Lunar Lander Challenge.