Google Lunar XPrize: Blasting off with Moon Express at Kennedy Space Center

Moon Express is gunning for the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize. We went down to Florida to watch a test of the team's lunar lander and to get an early look at its historic new facility.

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The criteria for winning the grand $20 million Google Lunar XPrize seems fairly straightforward: land on the moon, cross a distance of 500 meters and send back high-definition footage to Earth along the way. The natural solution to the problem, indeed the one that most of the GLXP competitors have envisioned, is to gently deposit a rover on the lunar surface and then let it pick its way across the required distance, dodging rocks and other moon junk along the way.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based Moon Express team, however, is taking a rather different approach. If all goes according to plan, the team's lander will make a soft, controlled landing on the moon, look around in high-definition, then lift off again. The lander will touch down a second time at a location at least 500 meters away from the first, completing the challenge and, if it does it before any of the other teams, taking home the $20 million Grand Prize.

In many ways, this simplifies things greatly. Rovers have a tendency to get stuck, break down or simply fail to deploy correctly. Also, designing and building one from scratch is no mean feat. "No rover" equals none of those issues, and less mass to haul off the planet in the first place.

That said, this approach does raise some complications. Touching down on the lunar surface -- at least, doing so in a controlled manner -- is the most risky and challenging aspect of the entire trip. Not only must the lander slow itself down to a precise speed while maintaining a precise trajectory, it must scan the terrain below and spot a good landing site while doing so. Moon Express wants to do this twice.

To see whether Moon Express has what it takes to pull this off, we traveled to Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the iconic former home of the Space Shuttle. There, Moon Express is testing its MTV-1X -- that is, its "Moon Express Test Vehicle 1 - XPrize Version." Or, more colloquially, the "flying donut," thanks to its toroidal shape. This is effectively a prototype for the final landing vehicle, the MX-1. The MX-1 will be launched into orbit atop a rather large rocket, fly itself across the approximately 240,000 miles to the moon and then orbit there a few times before touching down.

The Moon Express approach is interesting not only because it lacks a rover, but because the MX-1 is basically a flying fuel tank. The structure of the lander is itself the tank with the necessary thrusters, solar cells, cameras and other equipment attached.

The first step to verifying that it works was a series of thruster tests, purging and carefully filling the vehicle with hydrogen peroxide and ensuring things fired correctly. Initially, the craft was fully tied down. Later, it moved to so-called tethered tests, where it was allowed to fly under its own power while safely attached to a setup designed to ensure that the vehicle didn't come crashing down -- or, indeed, go tearing off into the Floridian scenery.

This testing took place at the Space Shuttle Landing Facility, where the shuttle came home after missions and its crew disembarked. At the end of the runway is a simulated lunar surface with craters and obstructions. It's a fine and historic place, but Moon Express is moving to some new digs, just down the road at the former Space Launch Complex 36. (That's SLC-36 in NASA terminology.) We were lucky enough to get an early tour.

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SLC-36 dates back to the early '60s and is the spot where the Atlas rockets were developed. The site also saw the launch of the Surveyor probes, America's first vehicles to touch down on the lunar surface.

The site includes a massive concrete bunker, fitted with periscopes so that rocket scientists like the famous Wernher von Braun could watch the launch of their vehicles in (relative) safety. The team has rechristened the bunker "Moon Mountain."

Completely without power or windows at this point, venturing within Moon Mountain is more like spelunking than exploring. Inside the dark, damp and, frankly, smelly surroundings it was hard not to imagine what it must have been like in there 50 years earlier. Those imaginings were made easier by many vintage consoles and bits of equipment left scattered about.

Moon Express has plans to invest some $500,000 into the 80 acre site, turning it into the ultimate research and development destination for future lunar programs. This will include multiple pads for lander tests, engine firing stations and, of course, office space for the company's personnel.

For now, though, the goal is the moon, to be the first private team to land there and take home the Google Lunar XPrize. There's still a long way to go.

See the rest of our Google Lunar XPrize coverage here


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