The X-Prize competition for building a lander vehicle capable of making a simulated landing and liftoff on the Moon has come to a close, with the 1st place, $1 million award going to Masten Space Systems for their vehicle, Xoie (pronounced like the name ‘Zoey’). Armadillo Aerospace came in a close second, and received $500,000 for their Scorpius rocket. The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X-Prize challenge was initiated to spur development of lunar landing vehicle by a privately funded institution. The last of the challenge flights occured Friday, October 30th, and the competition came down to the wire, as Masten encountered problems on Wednesday and Thursday challenge windows that delayed their final flight to the last day of the challenge.
The challenge was divided into two categories, Level 1 and Level 2. Here’s the rules for the two categories, as taken from the X-Prize Foundation website:
Level 1, requires a rocket to take off from a designated launch area; climb to a low, fixed altitude; and fly for at least 90 seconds before landing precisely on a different landing pad. The flight must then be repeated in reverse. Both flights, along with all of the necessary preparation for each, must take place within a two and a half hour period. $500,000 in prizes was initially allocated to Level 1.
The more difficult course, Level 2, requires the rocket to fly for 180 seconds before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface constructed with craters and boulders. The minimum flight times are calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulates the power needed to perform a real descent from lunar orbit down to the surface of the Moon. A $1 million First Place and a $500,000 second place prize remain to be claimed by the winners of Level 2
Xoie experienced communications and leakage issues on Wednesday and Thursday. A leak on Thursday afternoon caused a small fire, but the team spent the night fixing the problem, and the craft flew wonderfully on Friday., October 30th. Xoie is a lighter and more powerful version of Masten’s Level 1 vehicle, Xombie. (Wouldn’t it have been more fitting if Xombie flew the day before Halloween, though?)
Both teams met the qualifications for the Level 2 prize, but Masten had an average landing accuracy of 19 cm (7.5 in), while Armadillo Aerospace acheived an accuracy of 87 cm (34 in). This means that Masten beat out Armadillo on the very last day of the challenge by little over two feet! What an exiting space race!
Masten and Armadillo qualified for the Level 1 prizes earlier this year, with Armadillo claiming the first prize of $350,000 and Masten second place with $150,000. An awards ceremony will be held for the winning teams on November 5th.
Here’s a video of the winning flight:
Neither company plans to rest on their laurels after these victories, though. Masten said in a press release, “We are building up a good head of steam. Next year is going to be full of bigger, faster, and higher. Winning contests is fun, but we won’t rest until we’re flying a fleet of vehicles into space carrying all sorts of commercial payloads.” They have been awared a Department of Defense Small Business Innovation and Research contract to use their vehicles in network communications testing. Masten also has a program that will fly payloads into space for $250 a kilogram.
Armadillo Aerospace has flown a vehicle in every X-Prize cup so far, and company founder John Carmack said after their Level 2 challenge flight on September 14th, “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. We’ll be moving quickly to do higher-altitude tests, and we can go up to about 6,000 feet 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.” See our coverage on Universe Today of Armadillo’s qualifying test flight for more information and cool videos.
This is far from the last challenge that the X-Prize foundation has come up with. The Google Lunar X-Prize will award $30 million to the first privately funded team to send a robot lander to the Moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit videos and data back to the Earth. There are X-prize competitions in areas other than exploration and astronomy, including the life sciences, energy and the environment, and education and global development.