Lunar Lander Challenged

One small step for NASA, One giant leap for the X Prize

Interorbital eXcluded? Rules in fluX?

Interorbital Systems
Randa and Roderick Milliron of Interorbital Systems

It seems that the Lunar Lander Challenge rules may eXclude Interorbital Systems from the competition. The following fuels and oxidizers shall be considered safe for operation at the Competition Venue: ethane, ethyl alcohol, gaseous oxygen, hydrogen, lesser than 70% H202, isopropyl alcohol, kerosene, liquid oxygen, methane, N20, propane, butane. The following fuels and oxidizers shall be considered unsafe for operation at the Competition Venue: greater than 70 percent H202, nitric acid, hydrazine, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, monomethylhydrazine, any hypergolic propellant combination.

One week after the contest was officially opened for registration, I asked Ken Davidian from NASA’s Centennial Challenges office and also Ian Murphy from the X Prize Foundation if there would be any restrictions on choice of propellants. They both said that anti-gravity would be excluded (for some reason), but could not think of anything else.

Interorbital CEO Randa Milliron expressed doubts about that even before the latest revised rules were circulated to interested parties. “I hope they don’t ban all hypergolics out of ignorance or misinformation,” she said. Hypergolic propellants spontaneously ignite on contact. Apollo’s Lunar Excursion Modules relied on them, and so will NASA’s next-generation lunar lander.

Hypergolics have a reputation for being highly toxic and unstable, but the propellants Interorbital wants to use for Lunar Lander Challenge are neither, say the Millirons. Furfuryl alcohol and white fuming nitric acid — “not to be confused with red fuming nitric acid” — are Green substitutes for highly toxic UDMH, Nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine.

They prefer hypergolics because they don’t want the added expense and extra complication of an igniter. “They’re reliable,” Rod said. “If you’re on the Moon, you don’t want to get stuck there for lack of a spark.”

I wonder if these late-breaking propellant eXclusions have anything to do with the snag at NASA that has kept the latest version of the Lunar Lander Challenge rules from becoming the officially approved Final Rules.

Paul Breed hasn’t revealed his full-scale propulsion plans, but he sounded alarmed by the “no hydrogen peroxide greater than 70 percent” rule.

Since neither Blue Origin nor SpaceDev have gone public with any plans to pursue the prize, could the contest be down to the only two who qualify — Armadillo and Masten? Or… are there dozens or at least a half a dozen other still-secret Lunar Lander Challenge teams still going over the paperwork?

Another rule that might be a snag is the one that says all attempts for the prize purse must take place at the contest venue, on two special days in October. But what if some team in the boondocks somewhere, say out by a dry lake bed where rocket-powered things are normally operated, could do the flight profile before X Prize Cup, while performing the qualifying flight tests, for instance? Then later they happen to destroy their vehicle in some way or other, and never end up making it to Las Cruces because they’re busy with other things, but they still have the winning flight, even after the events in New Mexico. Shouldn’t they be in the running for the prize? Why not?


Written by Robin

May 28, 2006 at 11:25 pm

Posted in lunar lander

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