Friday, September 18, 2009

Masten Space Systems Attempts to Qualify For Lunar Lander Challenge

Masten Space Systems unsuccessfully attempted a Level 1 flight on Sept. 16 as part of the Centennial Challenges - Lunar Lander Challenge at the company’s test facility at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

In order to qualify for Level 1 prize money, a rocket vehicle must lift off from one concrete pad, ascend to approximately 50 meters, travel horizontally, and land on a second pad. After refueling at that pad, the vehicle must repeat the flight back to a landing on the original pad within two and half hours. The vehicle must remain aloft for at least 90 seconds on both flights.

Masten’s rocket vehicle completed a near-perfect flight of 93 seconds duration from one launch pad to another with an accurate landing. However, the vehicle was unable to complete the round trip because of engine damage. The engine problem did not appear to affect the performance of the first flight, but the team decided to not risk another flight with a degraded engine.

After several years of development by the Masten team, this was the team’s first flight attempt in the Lunar Lander Challenge. They conducted the first free-flight test of their vehicle a day earlier on Sept. 15. This attempt was for the Level 1 second prize of $150,000. Armadillo Aerospace claimed the Level 1 first prize in 2008.

Masten Space Systems already has registered for two more flight attempts on Oct. 7-8 and Oct. 28-29. The company plans to try again for the Level 1 prize, as well as the more demanding Level 2 prize. In addition to Armadillo Aerospace, which qualified for the Level 2 prize on Sept. 12, two other lunar lander teams will be vying for NASA prize money during the next six weeks.

"With as many as four teams competing this year, we may see a wide-open race for all of the remaining lunar lander prize money," said NASA’s Centennial Challenge program manager, Andrew Petro. "NASA and the commercial space industry benefit from the diversity of technical solutions that these teams devise and demonstrate."

The Lunar Lander Challenge competition is managed for NASA by the X Prize Foundation under a Space Act Agreement. NASA provides all of the prize funds. The Northrop Grumman Corporation is a commercial sponsor for the challenge, providing operating funds to the X Prize Foundation.

The Lunar Lander Challenge is one of six current Centennial Challenges managed by NASA’s Innovative Partnership Program. The Regolith Excavation Challenge will be held Oct. 17-18 at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. The Power Beaming and Astronaut Glove Challenges are planned for 2009, but details have not been finalized. The Green Flight Challenge for super-efficient aircraft will conclude in July 2011 in Santa Rosa, California.