NEW YORK — A commercial vehicle successfully completed a mock lunar landing Sept. 12, qualifying its team to win a $1 million prize offered for the NASA-funded Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
The rocket-powered craft, built by Armadillo Aerospace, ascended 50 meters into the air, flew over to land on a simulated rocky lunar surface 50 meters away, and then rose and flew back to land where it started. The flight included a requirement of at least 180 seconds of flying time.
Armadillo’s lander, named Scorpius, weighs about 860 kilograms fully fueled. The vehicle made its flight at the Caddo Mills Airport in Texas, where Armadillo Aerospace’s facilities are based.
Armadillo is the first team to complete these requirements, which comprise Level 2 of the Lunar Lander Challenge. The company won Level 1 of the competition in October 2008, snagging a $350,000 purse. That achievement required a similar flight, but for half the time — only 90 seconds. The minimum flight time for Level 2 is calculated to simulate a trip between the Moon’s surface and lunar orbit.
“Since the Lunar Lander Challenge is quite demanding in terms of performance, with a few tweaks our Scorpius vehicle actually has the capability to travel all the way to space,” said John Carmack, head of Armadillo Aerospace. “We’ll be moving quickly to do higher-altitude tests, and we can go up to about 6,000 feet [1,828 meters] here at our home base in Texas before we’ll have to head to New Mexico where we can really push the envelope. We already have scientific payloads from universities lined up to fly as well, so this will be an exciting next few months for commercial spaceflight.”
NASA will award the $1 million prize for Level 2 this year after all the entering teams have a chance to compete. Armadillo was the first of three teams gunning for the title; Masten Space Systems and Unreasonable Rocket are scheduled to make prize attempts before the closing of this year’s competition window on Oct. 31.
“Carmack and the entire Armadillo team made it look easy … an overnight success after four years of hard work,” said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, which manages the prize on behalf of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. “Congratulations on two perfect flights. Now we’ll need to see if any other teams attempt the Level 2, Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. If no one does, then Armadillo will win $1 million in purse cash.”
The flight represents an achievement not just for Armadillo, but for the whole commercial spaceflight field. With NASA’s space shuttle fleet soon to retire, and the agency’s goal of returning humans to the Moon uncertain in the face of political and budget constraints, private companies could play an increasingly important role in space exploration.
“Congratulations to Armadillo Aerospace, NASA and the X Prize Foundation for their excellent teamwork in making this week’s Lunar Lander Challenge milestone possible,” said Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “This competition shows exactly how much NASA can benefit from close engagement with the commercial spaceflight sector.”