After SpaceShipOne took home the X-Prize in 2004, the X-Prize Cup became an annual event. This year, there was only one entry in the Lunar Lander Challenge: John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace, which fielded a pair of rockets named Pixel and Texel. Unfortunately, Pixel crashed and Texel didn't fly.
The Challenge requires a rocket to lift off carrying a small payload, climb to least 50m, then descend vertically onto another pad 100m away. To win the challenge, the rocket must then fly back to the original pad.
Carmack's team did some impressive engineering work with their rockets, which were able to lift off and fly. Landing, on the other hand, was tricky. At the end of the 100m flight, "We managed to set it down on the pad, but when it landed, all for landing legs broke off," wrote John Carmack on the company web site. "I was preparing to fly it back 'on bloody stumps,' but we also cooked the drive and feedback cables on one of the gimbal actuators, so we couldn't make the return flight."
After ripping the legs from Texel, Pixel was ready to fly again. The next day it was launched again, but only got two legs on the landing pad this time, and it tipped over again. The team patched up another broken leg and launched the vehicle a final time, hoping to complete at least one of the official requirements and win some prize money.
It didn't happen. Just after launch, the vehicle began to tip and spin, then exceeded the automatic safety thresholds for tilt. The computer automatically shut down the engine, and the rocket lurched off the side of the pad, where it seemed to be "down for the count."
While Carmack and team were understandably frustrated, they're already pledging to be back next year. A recent sponsorship deal with NVIDIA should ensure that the cash keeps coming in, and the Armadillo team also learned that Pixel was just "mostly dead" and might live to fly another day. "We are going to take a little break to recuperate and catch up on our other responsibilities," said Carmack, "then get back at it to nail all the known issues and proceed on to bigger and better things."
While the attempt ended in "failure," it did demonstrate that a team with limited funding could do some nifty engineering and could actually produce a working VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) rocket without the backing of any major space agency. Here's hoping that next year's X-Prize Cup is even more exciting.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006