May 5, 2006

NASA Sponsors Lunar Rocket Challenge

LOS ANGELES (AP) - NASA said Friday it is sponsoring a $2 million contest to spur aerospace designers to build and demonstrate versatile rockets that may one day support a lunar mission.

The competition is part of the space agency's Centennial Challenges program, which aims to foster innovation by offering prizes to teams that can solve a range of problems.

NASA is working with the Santa Monica-based X Prize Foundation to conduct the Lunar Lander Analog Challenge, simulating a trip between the surface of the moon and low lunar orbit. NASA hopes the technology developed would be capable of carrying humans and cargo back and forth between the lunar surface and orbit.

The lunar contest will be held during the X Prize Cup in New Mexico in October, a planned yearly event featuring rocket competitions and space-related activities. It will be run by the X Prize Foundation at no cost to NASA.

The duo previously announced a partnership to collaborate on the project, but the contest's rules and purse amount were made official Friday at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles.

Competing teams have to build a rocket that can launch vertically, climb to a certain altitude and suspend in the air, land at a target 100 yards away and then return to its original launch pad. The competition has two levels of difficulties and several prizes will be awarded. The largest prize is $1.2 million.

Last year, NASA sponsored a Centennial Challenge that required contestants to build a tough but lightweight tether that could be used on a future space elevator. The competition produced no winner.

The X Prize Foundation is best known for hosting the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 that jump-started the space tourism industry.

SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won the competition by becoming the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space twice within 14 days.

Rutan is currently building a commercial version of SpaceShipOne that could carry tourists on suborbital spaceflights by late 2008 or 2009 pending federal regulatory approval.


On the Net:

Centennial Challenges: http://centennialchallenges.nasa.gov

X Prize Foundation: http://www.xprize.org