Space startup company Armadillo Aerospace won the $350,000 prize on Friday in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, proving that a private company has the know-how to build a craft capable of ferrying supplies or astronauts around the lunar surface. At the X Prize event in New Mexico, Armadillo’s craft won the Level One Challenge when it successfully lifted off and climbed vertically 160 feet, scooted sideways in the air for more than 90 seconds and touched down on a landing pad; finally, the craft had to refuel and make the return journey.
The challenge is meant to encourage private space companies to literally aim for the moon with their technology, and X Prize officials called Armadillo’s triumph a validation of that approach. Peter Diamandis, X Prize Foundation CEO, said: “The incredible legacy of Armadillo is their ability to fly over and over again in a low-cost fashion. They actually build the vehicle, fly it, see what happens, and make the repairs. They can iterate multiple times in a couple of days…. It’s really the garage rocket scientist approach to low-cost reliable vehicles. I think it’s something that the larger companies and the government should be learning from” [SPACE.com].
Armadillo’s craft, called Pixel, also made an attempt on Saturday to win the Level Two Challenge, which has the fatter prize of $1.65 million, but failed when the craft had a problem shortly after ignition, causing the engine to shut off and the craft to fall over. The Level Two Challenge requires the craft to stay in the air for 180 seconds, and land on rocky terrain that resembles the lunar surface.
However, the failure of the second attempt didn’t phase the Armadillo team, who have been very open about their trial-and-error approach to developing spacecraft. Armadillo Aerospace, based in Mesquite, Texas, is run and financed by video game Doom and Quake creator John Carmack, has an all-volunteer crew and has been building and flying vehicles at X Prize events since 2006. Their armadillo mascot, Widget, is featured in their online videos documenting some of their dramatic crashes. You can even buy pieces of bent metal that are recovered from the crash site, called Widget droppings, to help fund the program [Wired News].
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Image: X Prize Foundation