NASA launches lunar lander contest

Entrepreneurs are invited to build spacecraft that can simulate landing on the moon, in a $2.5 million contest hosted by the agency and X Prize.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
NASA is calling on private industry to build next-generation spacecraft that can land on the moon, and it's got $2 million to back up the bid.

On Friday, the U.S. space agency announced it has forged a partnership with the X Prize Foundation, an organization that promotes space exploration, to hold the Lunar Lander Analog Challenge. The contest, for development of a vehicle to simulate a landing on the moon, carries $2.5 million in prizes, including NASA's purse. The X Prize Foundation will host and pay for the competition to take place in Las Cruces, N.M., in October, when it puts on its own X Prize Cup.

"NASA's exploration vision calls for putting humans back on the moon in the next decade. The vehicles to land on the moon no longer exist," X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis said in a statement. "We believe that entrepreneurial companies can build these lunar spaceships, and a Lunar Lander Challenge can stimulate the required technology in an efficient and rapid fashion."

Lunar Lander Challenge

Private-industry space flight is a hot area of development. Many tech visionaries, such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, have engineered their own spacecraft to compete in the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million challenge to promote commercial space tourism. In addition, there's the Rocket Racing League, a New York-based venture designed to turn rocket racing into a commercial sport.

The Lunar Lander competition has two parts. The first requires a vehicle to launch from a designated area, rocket up to 150 feet (50 meters) in altitude, and then hover for 90 seconds. The vehicle then must land precisely on a pad 100 meters away. Prizes for "level 1" are $350,000 for first place and $150,000 for second place.

The second course requires a vehicle to launch from an area, rocket up to 150 feet (50 meters) in altitude, and then hover for 180 seconds before landing precisely on a simulated, rocky, lunar surface 100 meters away. Level 2 prizes are $1.25 million to the winner, $500,000 for second place and $250,000 for third. If no one wins, the funds will be held over for next year's competition.

According to X Prize spokesman Ian Murphy, an unannounced partner is donating the remaining $500,000 in prize money. The challenge will ultimately be renamed in June when X Prize unveils the name of the sponsor and team contestants, Murphy said.

For NASA, the $2 million prize money is a small price to pay for the promise of technical innovation from private industry or untapped genius. The contest does not grant NASA intellectual property rights to winners' inventions, but the space agency asks contestants to be willing to negotiate licensing rights in good faith if it shows interest in a particular technology or design.

Brant Sponberg, the manager of NASA's Centennial Challenge program, said the agency decided to offer the challenge that way, because it may end up being interested in a losing team's invention rather than the winner's.

"It's really a good way for us to tap into the types of folks that don't normally participate in NASA competitions, or through our regular contracts and grants. It could be geniuses in a certain field, smart university students or emerging companies with valuable technology innovation," Sponberg said.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale announced the joint venture at the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference on Friday.