Armadillo qualifies for megabuck X-prize

By Phil Plait | September 21, 2009 7:30 am

NASA’s Lunar Lander Competition is designed to stimulate private companies to build space-travel related hardware. In this case, the challenge — with a million dollar prize — is to build a vehicle that can launch upward, move horizontally, and land on a simulated lunar surface… then do it again in reverse. Also? The vehicle has to have a flight time of at least 90 seconds for the Level 1 challenge, and 180 seconds for Level 2.

armadillo_lunarprizeArmadillo Aerospace passed the level 1 challenge last year, and as of last week had completed the challenge for Level 2! They have a very cool video of it on their website. The guys who run up to it with fire extinguishers are a lot braver than I am. The whole trip took just under two hours, including refueling between flights.

AA has not yet won the challenge, though; there are two other companies trying for the purse as well. If one of those companies does make it, then the megabuck award will go to the one who landed more accurately. Those attempts will be made around the end of October.

These prizes are a fantastic idea. Even though it costs substantially more to build these vehicles than the prize money awarded, it sets up a fierce (but I think friendly) rivalry between companies, and spurs our very-human competitive nature. That’s in part what drives us onward… and upward.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space

Comments (37)

Links to this Post

  1. Widget’s Blog » Proper Lunar Lander | September 21, 2009
  1. That is sooooooo cool!
    Here’s a link to one of AA’s competitors for the prize:
    http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/09/15/2069817.aspx
    They had a little engine trouble, but will try again.
    I like the (apparent) simplicity of AA’s design.

  2. Wayne

    So, is this a forward leap for Texas?

  3. James H.

    I had to look up the location before writing this, but I agree with Wayne. It’s not all bad in Texas!

  4. For some reason, the video isn’t loading here. But, “cool”, anyway.

  5. StevoR

    Well done & great to hear. Congrats to Armadillo. :-)

    But .. um … don’t we already have a perfectly good Lunar lander that was actually used on theMoon itself about five times (Apollo 11 -Eagle, 12 -Intrepid, 14- Antares 15-Falcon 16 -Orion & 17 -Challenger ) back in 1969-72?

    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Lunar_Module for more.

    Doesn’t the LEM count or something? ;-)

    Good as this is lets not forget that NASA has beaten the corporations by over 40 years.

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    And to think that SSO only burns for ~ 60 s. (Though with thrust enough for 2-3 g.)

  7. Mandarb

    How does it manoeuvre? From what I can see just with the main thruster, that vectors around, sort of like the more modern jets. I don’t see any other smaller directional thrusters. Is that correct?

  8. Keith (the first one)

    That’s cool. I like it!

  9. Dave H

    StevoR: No, we don’t have a perfectly good lander. Once upon a time, we may have, but let us not forget that NASA abandoned all that wonderful technology after Apollo 17 and promptly lost track of it.

    NASA, for their “new” manned mission plans have had to examine old rocket motors and heat shields in the Smithsonian’s collection. There is almost no one left who remembers how they worked and apparently the plans were lost or thrown away. Most of the actual hardware was disposed of almost 40 years ago.

    Of course, the great advances in composite materials, microprocessors and energy sources make much of the old Apollo era stuff obsolete. Given the direction NASA went post-Apollo, it is hardly surprising that someone else managed to reinvent (and improve) the wheel, as it were.

  10. @ Wayne and James H.

    I do have to wonder, how many of those folks are Texans? Maybe they just happen to locate themselves there to be near NASA/Houston, but it’s all imported brains. ;) Sorry, couldn’t resist!

    @ Mandarb, I think I see some sort of nozzles on the side of the top sphere that could be reactive jets of some sort. Maybe something as simple as pressurized gas? Sorry, the video won’t play for me, so I can’t say for sure.

    Is the “Yankee Clipper” technology that Northrop I think demonstrated a while back part of all this? As I recall, they had some spectacular technology that would translate well for a vertical takeoff and landing module. And for a lunar module, all that pesky aerodynamics isn’t required!

  11. Benjamin Perdomo

    Something interesting about Armadillo is their founder: John Carmack, who is also the founder of id Software, and who makes all their graphic engines. That man is a genius.

  12. Joe

    Score one for free market space technology. Hopefully this really gets going.

  13. JayB

    re: How does it manoeuvre? The thrust is vectored by gimbal movement of the exhaust (ie: the nozzle moves left thrust pushes right) afaik RCS thrusters aren’t very useful except in 0g.

    as for “have a perfectly good Lunar lander”, the LM for Apollo cost ~$50million in 1969 http://www.astronautix.com/craft/aponding.htm which does notinclude development costs

    that’s something like $300,000,000 in todays dollars http://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/result.php

    although i don’t know if there’s hard numbers on what John Carmack has spent, I seem to remember its somewhere in the $3.5 million (wikipedia) since 2000 but I also believe in that time AA has flown something like 4000 test flights

    When you consider the Ares test flight a couple of week ago cost $75 million – for a single test, you begin to see why what AA and the others are doing is so exciting.

    Perhaps even more inspiring is UnreasonableRocket…a father & son team working out of their garage…

  14. This whole “Earth landing” video was faked. It was obviously filmed in a studio. You can see the suspension cables and the paint drips on the backdrop.

    Seriously, though, this is way too cool. This is one of the mileposts toward getting back onto the surfaces of other worlds after far too long a time stuck in Earth orbit.

    I had to reload several times before the video would play.

    I don’t see any gas discharge that might be used for maneuvering. The engine nozzle, however, swivels vigorously at a few points in the video.

  15. Rory Kent

    John Carmack is amazing at everything…

  16. 10. Larian LeQuella Says: “Is the “Yankee Clipper” technology that Northrop I think demonstrated a while back part of all this? As I recall, they had some spectacular technology that would translate well for a vertical takeoff and landing module. And for a lunar module, all that pesky aerodynamics isn’t required!”

    That was actually McDonnell-Douglas under the leadership of Gary Hudson as project manager. I always wondered about the politics that went on behind the scenes of the X-33 awards because here MD had working hardware, but Lockheed got the contract!

    Hudson was so annoyed that he quit MD and started “Rotary Rockets” that had a remarkably outside-the-box concept of a vertical launch and land SSTO that went up on rocket power and landed using helicopter blades! A remarkably creative solution to energy management on the way down.

    For more info, see the last chapter of “Spaceship Handbook.”

    - Jack

  17. Maagaard

    If you are into this check out http://copenhagensuborbitals.com/

    And yes, they are for real.

  18. This is obviously fake. There is no crater! ;)

    Actually, this is very awesome. It was kind of mesmerizing to watch how stable this thing was. It didn’t look wobbly at all. Hats off to those guys. I can’t wait to see more stuff like this!

  19. Wow! Very vool!

    Bonus: I’m just watching a broadcast about the fake moon landing conspiracy on (german) TV. Both sides – Kaysing, Sibrel et al and some REAL scientists… :-)

  20. Sarah

    @Lewis, it was impressive how stable it looked, in spite of it’s visually top-heavy appearence. It must be like balancing a broomstick on your hand — better left to gyros & computers than me!

    Still, if Lockheed Martin can make this fly:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBMU6l6GsdM

    A maneuverable lander should be doable. 180 second flight time is impressive though.

  21. Nemo

    I don’t really see any manoeuvring; it seems to be just hovering. It does that real good, though.

  22. James H.

    @ Larian
    They are probably all from India and China….with Japanese technology. :-)
    I wouldn’t doubt it!

  23. 21. Nemo Says: “I don’t really see any manoeuvring; it seems to be just hovering. It does that real good, though.”

    It translates sideways several hundred yards/meters before it lands.

    - Jack

  24. MrMud
  25. Mike M

    There is no million d0llars. Charles Bolden, Jr. will never release the money even if they do win. Armadillo Aerospace doesn’t use their powers for mere money, they help people – plus they refuse to be tested by an organization who’s name is an acronym.

    Notice how when reality – and not self delusion or fraud – is involved, you don’t hear the lame excuses like the ones above?

  26. Joe Meils

    Let’s hope the Von Braun estate doesn’t sue them for plagerisim…

    Seriously! Is it just me, or is anyone else seeing a certain “retro” design here? Remember those Lindberg kits they had back in the 1950′s? Seems to me I had one of those early luner lander designs hanging from my ceiling as a kid: open framework, with spindly legs, and a fusalage made up of a spereical propellant tank, and a second one for oxidizer… and a smaller third sphere for a crew compartment, a couple of pressurization tanks…

  27. Yojimbo

    Sounds cool. For some reason the vid won’t load here either.

  28. Rob

    I agree with Dennis and Lewis – it’s so fake. There’s no blast crater and the “flight” looks suspiciously similar to this, in which the insider whistleblower clearly “forgot” to photoshop out the cables and crane:
    http://media.armadilloaerospace.com/2009_02_24/2_LM_Pyro_Ignition_Liftoff_JC_Melcher.jpg

    And, erm, you can’t see any stars in the sky! And the crew’s seating positions are ridiculously inappropriate for flight!
    http://media.armadilloaerospace.com/2008_10_18/CRW_7894.jpg

  29. Gary Ansorge

    Way cool! Now, if I could just get that strapped to my back,,,

    They only spent $3.4 million on this? Now, THAT’S impressive.

    Gary 7

  30. «bønez_brigade»

    What, no UAC jokes yet?

  31. 27. Joe Meils Says: “Is it just me, or is anyone else seeing a certain “retro” design here? Remember those Lindberg kits they had back in the 1950’s? Seems to me I had one of those early lunar lander designs hanging from my ceiling as a kid: open framework, with spindly legs, and a fuselage made up of a spherical propellant tank, and a second one for oxidizer… and a smaller third sphere for a crew compartment, a couple of pressurization tanks…”

    That’s a spot-on observation. It’s sort of a result of convergent engineering. I think, though, what you are describing is the “round the moon” ship, which did a reconnaissance loop around the moon in a free-return trajectory (sort of like Apollo 13, but on purpose). Here’s the diagram of it from the book “Across the Space Frontier”:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/arboghast/3409437227/

    You’ll notice that it has no landing legs. The real lander ships were much larger and more complex. Here’s a modern image reconstruction of the design:

    http://www.zianet.com/sundayt/images/lndgburn.jpg

    BTW, I felt the design significant enough to put it in front of all others on the cover of “Spaceship Handbook”:

    http://www.arapress.com/ssh.php

    Of course, being a wraparound cover, some of it is on the spine and back cover.

    - Jack

  32. StevoR

    @ 9. Dave H Says:

    StevoR: No, we don’t have a perfectly good lander. Once upon a time, we may have, but let us not forget that NASA abandoned all that wonderful technology after Apollo 17 and promptly lost track of it.

    NASA, for their “new” manned mission plans have had to examine old rocket motors and heat shields in the Smithsonian’s collection. There is almost no one left who remembers how they worked and apparently the plans were lost or thrown away. Most of the actual hardware was disposed of almost 40 years ago.

    Really? Really? If that is true then its incredibly sad and wasteful but I have to admit I have great difficulty believing that assertion.

    Of course, the great advances in composite materials, microprocessors and energy sources make much of the old Apollo era stuff obsolete. Given the direction NASA went post-Apollo, it is hardly surprising that someone else managed to reinvent (and improve) the wheel, as it were.

    Well, yes, technology has indeed moved on & I’m sure improvements can & will be made. Any new LEM is awesome & I hope we’ll see afew models and mor eimprovemnts with the passage of time.

    All I’m saying is, hey NASA did it first a lo-oong time ago now so while this is superb to hear, its not a first and the public sector did win this race against the private sector by forty years! Government can-do in the interests of everyone isnt so bad and private and corporate can-do isn’t always as crash hot as it is suggested to be by some extremist Invisible Hand Marketeers. That truth has been scientifically and historically proven.

    That said, any new rocket and spacecraft is coool and welcome in my book. :-)

  33. Dave H

    StevoR
    As I recall, Air and Space Smithsonian Magazine has had some information on lost NASA technology. The only one I can locate right off concerns heat shields: http://www.airspacemag.com/space-exploration/In-the-Museum-.html?c=y&page=1

    As regards the “public sector” beating the “private sector” please bear in mind most of the actual design and construction came from private companies working under contract with NASA. The LM, was for the most part, designed and built by Grumman Aircraft on Long Island, NY.

  34. AJ

    “9. Dave H Says:
    September 21st, 2009 at 10:02 am

    StevoR: No, we don’t have a perfectly good lander. Once upon a time, we may have, but let us not forget that NASA abandoned all that wonderful technology after Apollo 17 and promptly lost track of it.

    NASA, for their “new” manned mission plans have had to examine old rocket motors and heat shields in the Smithsonian’s collection. There is almost no one left who remembers how they worked and apparently the plans were lost or thrown away. Most of the actual hardware was disposed of almost 40 years ago.”

    Really? The old “NASA lost/threw away their plans” thing?

    I’d really like to see you prove that. What with it not being true.

    For example, http://www.space.com/news/spacehistory/saturn_five_000313.html

    Also, the BA might like a word with you.

  35. James

    That was pretty cool! I loved the zip ties on the hoses.

  36. JB of Brisbane

    “This is the voice of Voyager 1… greetings from the people of Planet Earth”.

    Just don’t cut in the Queller Drive too soon.

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