How to win the Lunar X Prize

  • PM's vision of a lunar lander on arrival. A: S-Band antenna; B: Laser radar guidance; C: Lunar rover; D: Hydrazine retrorockets. Illustration by Jeremy Cook
  • Unless your team is allied with a company or university that has spare rovers, like Carnegie Mellon, prepare to custombuild your own rig.
  • Owners of the Allen Telescope Array, which is used to detect alien radio signals, are offering several days of free reception for X Prize 'mooncasts'.
  • Lockheed's Athena II is the only rocket on the market that has delivered cargo to the Moon. It costs R185 million - more than the prize is worth.
  • In 2007, Armadillo Aerospace engineers competed in a privately funded lunar lander challenge. Despite several successful test flights, their liquid-oxygen-and ethanol-fuelled craft could not win the prize. No other team fielded a flight-ready contender.
Date:30 June 2008 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It’s easy: form a team, build a rover, rent a rocket, land softly and collect the jackpot.

The year is 2012. About 400 000 km from Earth, a small spacecraft is nearing the surface of the Moon. When the unmanned craft touches down in a cloud of rocket-blown dust, it becomes the first man-made object to arrive intact on the lunar surface in 32 years.

But the logo on the side of the spacecraft doesn’t belong to Nasa or any other government space agency. Instead, the images beamed back to Earth by the small rover that emerges from the spacecraft reveal a familiar multicoloured corporate logo: Google’s. Not a single cent of public money has been expended, or a scrap of governmental red tape encountered, during the mission.

That’s the scenario envisaged by the creators of the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million (R150 million) reward for the first privately funded group to land a rover on the Moon by December 31, 2012. To win the prize, the rover must do more than arrive in one piece. It must travel at least half a kilometre and send a “Mooncast” of high-definition video, photos and text to Earth.

The point of the contest is to encourage entrepreneurs and inventors to participate. So, in the spirit of PM’s long heritage of do-it-yourself projects, we offer aspiring X Prizers this guide to landing your own rover on the Moon. Don’t let the tight deadline deter you from trying: if nobody wins by 2012, three-quarters of the prize money will remain on the table for late arrivals through at least 2014.

The X Prize Foundation models its efforts after contests that spurred technological progress and public enthusiasm during the golden age of aviation. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight from New York to Paris was undertaken in pursuit of the R175 000 Orteig Prize, donated by a hotel magnate in 1919. In 1996, the X Prize Foundation offered R75 million to anyone who could build a reusable spacecraft. The contest inspired aerospace maverick Burt Rutan and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen to create SpaceShipOne, which flew private astronauts to suborbital altitudes twice within two weeks in 2004.

This latest, lunar addition to the X Prize franchise is meant to focus participants’ time and money on affordable innovations. At this writing, 10 teams have registered to compete for the jackpot. “It used to take a nation to land on the Moon,” says Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation. “We’re throwing down the gauntlet to challenge private groups to do it a hundred times cheaper.”

The chequebook
Even with the most frugal project managers, winning will likely cost your team more than the prize is worth. Preliminary budget estimates made by X Prize teams range from R150 million to three-quarters of a billion rand. With billionaire benefactors like Allen in short supply, you’ll have to devise creative ways to make up the difference – corporate sponsorships, perhaps, or even fees to haul precious, though creepy, cargo: a kilogram of cremated remains soft-landed near the Apollo 11 site could be worth around R40 million, says Red Whittaker, head of the Astrobotic team, a serious contender with backing from Raytheon and Carnegie Mellon University. Odyssey Moon, which developed a for-profit lunar-rover-based business plan before the X Prize was announced, says it already has R300 million in payload fee commitments.

Other proposed money-raising schemes include selling TV rights, licensing toy rovers and charging earthbound drivers for the chance to steer the rover by remote control. One team plans to enable its rover to trade instant messages with thousands of earthlings.

Although you’ll have to develop your own rover, almost everything else you need – rocket motors, telemetry packages, attitude thrusters, launch vehicles – can be plucked out of the parts bins of space companies. “This isn’t just a race to the Moon, it’s a race to Russia to see what kind of stuff they’ve got for sale,” says Odyssey Moon CEO Bob Richards, whose space sensor company developed the first commercial laser radar scanner flown into space.

Having a staff of veterans on your team is a big advantage: one of the three partners in Astrobotic is Raytheon Missile Systems, which will bring in technicians with experience from prior Nasa lunar programs.

The broadcast package
Your rover’s cameras, transmitters and power supply are the design linchpins for the entire mission. The mass and volume of this core payload dictate the design of your rover, which in turn influences the lander and, ultimately, the choice of launch vehicle.

Keeping in mind that the going rate for putting commercial payloads into orbit is R80 000 per kilogram, you should aim for a maximum target of 5 kg for the package.

There’s no need to reinvent the camera. A couple of RocketCams from Ecliptic Enterprises should weigh a total of about 1,5 kg and cost in the six-figure region, including a controller and cables. For a first-class upgrade – after all, R150 million is riding on the camera’s performance – consider a R40 million video unit from Malin Space Science Systems, derived from those in development for Nasa’s planned Mars Science Laboratory.

Broadcasting your 1 GB data set to Earth will be a bigger challenge. “Nothing off the shelf can do this,” says Rex Ridenoure, a former Nasa deep-space mission engineer and co-founder of the space firm Ecliptic Enterprises. In designing a broadcast transmitter, you’ll have to balance power requirements, aiming capabilities, beam widths and data transmission rates to broadcast a signal. The broadcast needs 30 to 40 watts of power, presumably supplied by solar cells on your lander or rover. The faint signal of your lunar broadcast will need to be downloaded when it reaches Earth. You should first consider a recent offer made to the X Prize Foundation by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute to use its recently opened Allen Telescope Array (ATA), which scans the universe for radio signals from intelligent extra-terrestrials. Last October the first 42 of a planned 350 dishes became operational.

But ATA only receives signals. To send commands to the rover, you can use Universal Space Network’s worldwide array of radio transmitter receivers. The company will rent the dishes and process all communications during the trip for a couple of million bucks.

The rover
Your design goal is deceptively simple: Build the smallest, lightest rover that will carry your broadcast package across the required 500 m of lunar terrain. You’ll also have to decide whether to use a rover that separates from the lander or combine the two vehicles into one unit.

Astrobotic’s Whittaker, a long-time Carnegie Mellon rover guru who recently won the Pentagon’s R15 million Darpa Urban Challenge, envisages a 60-kg fourwheel rover about waist high. One side will be draped with solar panels. As the rover zigzags across the Moon, the panels will continually face the Sun. Astrobotic’s ambitious plan calls for a landing near the Apollo 11 site in July ’09, the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s arrival, and perhaps a 25-km journey to Surveyor 5, a 1967 Nasa lander.

Taking the minimalist approach to an extreme, one team claims its rover might be the size of a cellphone. Another, headed by geo-stationary-satellite pioneer Harold Rosen, plans to use a “hopper” that would fire its hydrazine rockets for a few seconds in the weak lunar gravity and, in a series of jumps, travel the prescribed distance. An Italian team suggests using several small robots on mechanical legs. “Anything goes,” Diamandis says. “We want to inspire totally new thinking.”

The lander
Your spacecraft will likely be travelling at about 8 000 km/h during its approach to the Moon, and, without an atmosphere, a parachute is useless for braking and producing a gentle touchdown. “This isn’t a competition about rovers,” says Bob Richards of Odyssey Moon. “It’s really a competition about landers. The winner is the team that gets this part right.” All landers will require retrorockets to slow down during the descent. Fortunately, ATK Thiokol Propulsion offers a variety of tested solid-fuel motors for this task. “There’s almost no margin for error with the landing,” Ridenoure says. “It’ll be a nail-biter.”

You may prefer to have an autonomous lander because the 3-second delay in radio transmissions from the Moon makes remote controls sluggish. If you’re going for the $1-million (R7,5 million) bonus prize for a close-up look at a man-made artefact on the surface, you’ll need a pinpoint guidance system. Good luck trying to match Astrobotic, which plans to guide its craft with software developed by Raytheon to steer Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Finding lunar landing experience in the private sector is tricky. For example, a previous earthbound X Prize, the R15 million Lunar Lander Challenge, still awaits a winner after two years. The goal of that contest is to build something that can take off vertically from the New Mexico desert, hover at 45 m, and then land at a designated spot 100 m away. Only one team, computer gaming guru John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace, has managed even to develop a contestready lander – but it has yet to beat the challenge.

The launch vehicle
Prepare to enter a murky, secretive world where commercial launch providers’ brochure claims may be suspect and prices are “very negotiable”, according to space consultant Charles Bradley. Depending on your budget and the mass of your rover/lander package, you have a number of commercial launch options from large aerospace corporations, small startups and international players. If you are diplomatically savvy and also lucky, there are several budget-friendly options, such as thumbing a ride on an already planned geostationary-satellite launch. Once in orbit around the Earth, you’ll separate from the satellite and do your own final burn to the Moon’s orbit. Better yet, we hear that the Russian firm Lavochkin has 200 kg of spare payload space available all the way to lunar orbit on the announced Luna-Glob mission, set for 2012.

These options should be considered long shots: experimental hitchhikers are not usually welcomed on presold commercial launches. That leaves more expensive alternatives. Elon Musk, the PayPal mogul and founder of SpaceX, has spent more than three-quarters of a billion rand to develop the world’s lowest-cost space launcher. Musk, who sits on the X Prize board, has promised competing lunar teams a 10 per cent discount off the bargain R60 million list price for a ride on the still-in-development Falcon 1.

Although SpaceX has been designated the contest’s “preferred launch provider”, their base-model Falcon 1 has yet to reach low Earth orbit, much less blast off a Moonshot. Two test firings have both fallen short; a long-delayed third attempt to reach Earth orbit is set for this summer. Some team leaders have expressed scepticism that Falcon 1 will be able to handle the weight of their rovers, landers and rocket-braking stages. Going bigger means a costlier investment: SpaceX’s much larger Falcon 9 is scheduled to fly in 2009, but at a pre-discount price of R350 million. The only proven commercially available moon rocket is Lockheed Martin’s Athena II, which in 1998 boosted Nasa’s Lunar Prospector into orbit around the Moon. The company claims the rocket can send about 350 kg to the Moon. The last Athena II launch was nine years ago, and Lockheed Martin is mum about building more. Estimated price: about R185 million.

Demilitarised nuclear missiles are another good option. Orbital Sciences’ Minotaur V is a proposed modification of the surplus Peacekeeper ICBM. The missile, not yet cleared for commercial use, could loft nearly 500 kg of payload out of Earth’s orbit at an estimated price of R225 million.

In a similar swords-to-ploughshares conversion, the Kosmotras Dnepr is based on a former Russian ICBM and can now launch 725 kg toward the Moon, for the bargain price of R110 to R150 million. Realistically, the odds seem to be against a prize-winning lunar mission by 2012. But take heart: Lindbergh and Rutan beat long odds. If you manage to snag a friendly billionaire and follow our how-to guide, there’s no reason you won’t be ready to join the pantheon of aerospace prizewinners.