Image: Pixel lunar lander
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Armadillo Aerospace's Pixel lunar lander entry hovers above its launch pad during a test.
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updated 10/18/2007 1:34:17 PM ET 2007-10-18T17:34:17

What goes up, must come down — but tenderly and precisely. That's part of the rules for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

The Challenge is a major head-turning event at the upcoming Holloman Air & Space Expo in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The countdown clock is ticking as the Oct. 27-28 expo draws closer, staged in collaboration with the Wirefly X Prize Cup.

At this year's Cup, the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge will see rocketeers vying for $2 million in prizes that are on the line — cash made available through NASA's Centennial Challenges Program. That space agency funding is focused on speeding up commercial development of technology that can ferry cargo and humans between the moon's surface and lunar orbit.

The competition is divided into two levels. Here are the basics:

Level 1 requires a rocket to take off from a designated launch area, rocket up to 150 feet (50 meters) altitude, and then hover for 90 seconds while landing precisely on a landing pad nearly 330 feet (100 meters) away. The flight must then be repeated in reverse — and both flights, along with all of the necessary preparation for each, must take place within a two and a half hour period.

Level 2 requires the rocket to hover for twice as long before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface, packed with craters and boulders to mimic actual lunar terrain. The hover times are calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulates the power needed to perform a real lunar mission.

The roster of rocket teams that entered this year's Challenge:

Acuity Technologies of Menlo Park, Calif.
Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas
BonNova of Tarzana, Calif.
Masten Space Systems based in Mojave, Calif.
Micro-Space of Denver, Colo.
Paragon Labs of Denver, Colo.
SpeedUp of Laramie and Chugwater, Wyoming
Unreasonable Rocket based in Solana Beach, Calif.

That's eight individual teams, with a ninth "mystery team" withdrawing rather than having their identity publicly revealed.

Acuity and Armadillo
"At this point, it looks like there are two teams that still have a chance to fly... Acuity and Armadillo," said Will Pomerantz, director of Space Projects for the X Prize Foundation. "Both have work to do between now and the Cup and, as is the nature of such a competition, new issues are continually arising for all parties," he told SPACE.com.

Pomerantz added that all those involved in the Challenge are getting quite good at quickly solving problems as they crop up, be they from Holloman Air Force Base, the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as well as X Prize Cup officials.

Armadillo still hopes to bring their two different vehicles, Pixel in Level Two, and "the MOD" in Level 1. Acuity is building two substantially similar vehicles, called "Tiger" and "Cardinal."

A Pomerantz prognostication: "We're confident that one of these teams will win at least one of the prizes this year!"

Almost all of the teams that are part of the competition — even though a majority of them are not going to actually fly their craft — should show up in one fashion or another, Pomerantz said, proudly displaying their varying vehicles.

Lunar leg up?
Acuity Technologies is led by Robert Clark, who founded the company in 1992. The team, which has previously designed unpiloted aerial vehicles for the Department of Defense, hopes that the lightweight craft they have concocted will give them an advantage in the Challenge.

Armadillo Aerospace is powered by John Carmack, founder of id Software. They are the only team to fly a vehicle in last year's Challenge, arguably giving them a lunar leg up on the rocket rivalry. Additionally, they have backed that view by repeat flights throughout the year of hardware to shake out control procedures and the technology itself.

And while lunar vehicles are being prepped by their respective teams, pads for the competition are being installed at Holloman. All five pads for this year's contest were generously donated by Mesa Verde Enterprises, Inc. of Alamogordo, New Mexico, Pomerantz noted. "They took a lot pride in the lunar surface...which looks fantastic."

Here comes the judging
Six judges — with more than 200 years of space experience between them — will oversee the competition, deciding a winner of the competition and other elements of the $2 million prize.

The judges are: Ed Bock, retiree and consultant to Lockheed Martin; Richard C. Dunne, consultant to Northrop Grumman Corporation; Bill Gaubatz, former head of the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X) reusable rocket program; John Herrington, Vice President of Rocketplane and former shuttle astronaut; S. Pete Worden, Center Director for NASA's Ames Research Center; and Jeff Zweber of the Air Force Research Lab's Space Vehicles Directorate.

As chief judge, Gaubatz underscored the fact the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge is a key element of a great contest, "the race to open space for business and pleasure, as well as to sustain a long term science and exploration thrust that will expand the universe in which we live, work, and play."

Gaubatz feels that those involved in the competition are part of the worldwide band of entrepreneurs and innovators "that are validating the efficacy of the new private space sector to design, build, and operate safe, reliable, and cost effective systems that can open and sustain space based commerce." The evolution of commercial space operations, he added, will one day soon allow NASA to exploit that capability for carrying-out operations for the space agency's space science and exploration programs.

Eat, sleep and dream
"It has been an excellent competition. In fact, perhaps it has been the best competition that we've run ... in terms of having a very high-percentage of the teams doing substantive work," Pomerantz suggested.

Although each of the teams took on the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge differently, was there a common thread between the groups?

"Passion," Pomerantz responded.

"In talking with these eight teams, it's clear that they are all absolutely thrilled about what they are doing ... spending all night, every night and all weekend, every weekend working on this," Pomerantz said. "These people eat, sleep and dream this stuff. Their love for their projects absolutely shows and is certainly reflected in their work."

For the latest information regarding the October 27-28 Wirefly X Prize Cup and Holloman Air and Space Expo, go to the Internet web site: http://space.xprize.org/x-prize-cup/.

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