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Moon Space Science

Armadillo Aerospace Claims Level 2 Lunar Lander Prize 134

Dagondanum writes "Armadillo Aerospace has officially won the 2009 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Level 2, on a rainy day at Caddo Mills, Texas. Reports came in from various locations during the day and spectators posted videos and images using social networking tools such as Twitter. The Level 2 prize requires the rocket to fly for 180 seconds before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface constructed with craters and boulders. The minimum flight times are calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulates the power needed to perform a real descent from lunar orbit down to the surface of the Moon. First place is a prize of $1 million while second is $500,000."
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Armadillo Aerospace Claims Level 2 Lunar Lander Prize

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  • Woohooo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by arikol ( 728226 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:18AM (#29404411) Journal

    Cool.
    The flight looked amazingly stable.

    GO Armadillo Aerospace. I'm just impressed and pleased that they made it.

    • Re:Woohooo (Score:2, Redundant)

      by bcmm ( 768152 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:27AM (#29404463)
      It does indeed move incredibly smoothly. How does it steady itself? It most certainly looks top-heavy. Are there separate thrusters keeping it from tipping, or does its main engine have thrust-vectoring?
      • Re:Woohooo (Score:5, Informative)

        by bcmm ( 768152 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:35AM (#29404503)
        I should have watched the end of the video first: around the three minutes mark you can clearly see the plume moving from side to side while the machine stays almost still relative to the ground.
        • Re:Woohooo (Score:5, Informative)

          by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @09:51AM (#29404799)

          Yep, the main engine is thrust vectoring. Roll control is handled by small cold-gas thrusters that use the same helium supply that pressurizes the main propellant tanks.

          Note also that "it most certainly looks top-heavy" is actually an example of the pendulum fallacy [wikipedia.org]. It doesn't matter whether the center of mass is far above, a little above, or below the rocket engine, you need active stabilization on a hovering rocket. (On a rocket flying a vertical trajectory, passive stabilization via fins will suffice to hold it basically straight.)

          • Market It As a Toy! (Score:3, Interesting)

            by sanman2 ( 928866 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @12:39PM (#29405683)
            Superb work from the minds of Armadillo!

            Maybe they need to find a way to turn something like into a commercializable product, to reap more rewards from their fine work.

            I wonder if there's some kind of dual-use alternative market for something like this? How about making a small miniaturized version that could be marketed as a toy for adult geeks? (aka "overgrown kids")

            Cmon - wouldn't you like to have your own miniature thrust-vectored hovering lander thingie floating around your office?

            Carmack's geek credentials are solid enough to be a brand. He could make his own toy company to market toy versions of any cool space tech he develops.

            • by sanman2 ( 928866 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @12:54PM (#29405787)
              You could power the toy version with lighter fluid. Some kind of chip would control the thrust vectoring, and some tiny microturbine would act as the turbopump for the rocket motor.

              Hey, why not? It would be cooler than these R/C micro-helicopters

              A really cool design would allow you to just plug in an ordinary Bic lighter into it as a ready-made fuel tank.

              A fancy version could even have a small camera onboard, and maybe send a video feed back to your laptop via bluetooth. There are R/C helicopters that have tiny cameras on them. You could control and steer the thing from your laptop too.

              I bet it could be done - and I bet plenty of people would buy it, too.

            • by sanman2 ( 928866 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @09:30PM (#29409337)
              Beyond the lunar lander prize, they should have another X-Prize for re-entry technologies, which could be tested using sounding rockets.

              I'm mentioning this in the wake of NASA's awesome low-cost Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment, which looks to have been a resounding success. It too was done using just a sounding rocket.

              Another example of a low-cost experiment was Australia's recent HyShot test for a hypersonic scramjet engine, which was also done using a sounding rocket. Such technologies are much more difficult to master than rockets are, but perhaps the Carmacks of the world can find more challenge in this.

              So technologies that can be tested/proven using sounding rockets would be the kinds of things that would be good for prize-based competitions, since their cost would be at a level where privately-funded teams might be able to manage it. This would keep the playing field open to a wider number of competitors.

            • by sbierwagen ( 1493705 ) on Monday September 14, 2009 @12:55AM (#29410411)
              You might be able to scale it down and have it run for more than three seconds and without using lawsuit-inspiringly high tank pressures, I don't know, I'm not a rocket scientist.

              But something that would be difficult to scale is the electronics. I don't know what precisely Armadillo is using right now, but I know it includes a Crossbow IMU. The control system for a rocket needs high quality gyros, and while the Crossbow is cheap by the rarefied standards of military avionics, it's still a good fifty grand, and is definitely not something that can be replaced by a wiimote accelerometer.
              • by sanman2 ( 928866 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @12:03AM (#29422351)
                Maybe things like the Crossbow IMU are what electronics and MEMS companies could develop a cheaper substitute for, if a toy market were to take off around little mini space-toy gadgets. Who knows what other appliances they could improve, from jittery camcorders to gesture-based cellphones.
          • by TerranFury ( 726743 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @01:59PM (#29406281)
            Is there any information out there on the stabilizing controllers used by Armadillo to achieve this? Does anyone know what methodology they used? Old-fashioned PID (or really lag-lead) with hand tuning? LQR on a linearized model? Feedback linearization? There are some references to "gains" in passing on the Armadillo website which makes me assume that there's a linear controller somewhere in there under the hood.... Anybody know?
            • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:37PM (#29406521)

              It's all software, but I believe it's a PID controller at heart. I know they do things that aren't strictly PID, like dead bands in the roll control, but I don't think it's terribly complicated. If you read through their updates [armadilloaerospace.com] they have a fair bit of information, in varying levels of detail.

              I know they've moved more and more to having broader control loops: instead of one loop that sets a thrust level in order to maintain position, and another that tweaks the throttle to hit the target thrust, they just wrap it into one loop that moves the throttle valve in order to maintain altitude.

              • by TerranFury ( 726743 ) on Monday September 14, 2009 @10:19AM (#29413175)

                I'd skimmed that updates page but hadn't found much. I took another look and found a bit more: On this page [armadilloaerospace.com], for instance, they mention using a simple PD controller for their throttle. That's not too surprising; it's all you need. What I'm more interested in though, and still haven't found, is how they control orientation -- if they're controlling Euler angles individually or doing something fancier on the Lie group of rotations...

        • by MacroRex ( 548024 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @01:15PM (#29405953)

          Yeah, it's gimbaled, like almost all modern rockets. For more info see here [wikipedia.org].

          Congrats to Armadillo!

      • by Svartalf ( 2997 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:42AM (#29404537) Homepage

        With the way the thrust cone wandered all over the place as they were landing, showing them compensating for things as they brought it down- I'm suspecting a bit of Gyro stabilization coupled with thrust vectoring for directional changes.

    • by belthize ( 990217 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @10:09AM (#29404879)

            I was impressed by that as well. While I realize it would never have to on the moon, I wonder how well it would deal with a slight breeze. It was making some fairly rapid corrections from what I assume was ground effect buffeting.

            Having never seen this one before I was a little taken back at the end when somebody jogged up to it. It was 2-3x bigger than I initially thought.

      • Re:Woohooo (Score:3, Informative)

        by Narishma ( 822073 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:22AM (#29405205)

        The corrections they were making near the end are so that they land as close as possible to the center of the pad, because that counts in determining who gets first place if another team also wins the challenge.

        • by belthize ( 990217 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:34AM (#29405271)

                I was talking about the rapid corrections in the thrust cone while the lander was stable. There's a pronounced difference in the correction rate around the 3:00 mark of the first video as thermals or reflected exhaust began to affect the lander. Those effects won't exist on the moon but it did cause me to wonder just how large an external force it can deal with before becoming catastrophically unstable.

      • by Nyeerrmm ( 940927 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @01:04PM (#29405869)

        Living in Texas and following the tweets about it, I believe it was actually fairly windy yesterday. It was stormy and rainy across the state, and I know that they were much more worried about the rain than the wind.

        That engine can thrust and vector a lot, and Dallas/Plano (their lab) and west Oklahoma (a common test site) aren't exactly known for their stellar weather, so they've always had to deal with wind.

        Sadly I have no concrete numbers, but 10 mph seems like a pretty reasonable limit based on the environment.

    • by filekutter ( 617285 ) <filekutter0@nOsPaM.lycos.com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @12:59PM (#29405827) Journal
      I'm so happy for AA I am going to fly onto my roof and dance nekkid till I get arrested. OH, and for those who may need a chuckle, I present this forum @ Space Fellowship. Arrogance, conceit, mis-understood genius, and more ! Troll heaven abounds ! http://spacefellowship.com/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=10511 [spacefellowship.com]
  • Google x-prize? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:22AM (#29404429) Journal
    Perhaps, just perhaps, this will land on the moon within 2 years. That would be a spectacle to see. I think that if I were Apple or Ellison, I might consider funding it. ANother one might be Paul Allen. Allen has always been on the cutting edge of tech (and unlike his previous partner, not stealing it). Hopefully, he considers talking to carmack and getting this going there. Something like would be likely to spark the kids a bit more.
    • by BuR4N ( 512430 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @09:00AM (#29404597) Homepage Journal
      I think the Google Lunar x-prize is pointless. Its now more or less 5 years to it expire, but the full sum is only paid out if someone makes the trip before the end of 2012.

      The orginal x-prize took 8 years for someone to win, and that prize had a strong commercial (space tourism) appeal, while the Google prize have not.
      • by lysergic.acid ( 845423 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @12:00PM (#29405409) Homepage

        Then maybe the time limit should be extended. And perhaps it should be geared more towards research teams from academia rather than commercial industries.

        First off, this is a much loftier goal (far more difficult than suborbital space flight), so naturally it will take longer to achieve. That's to be expected.

        Secondly, these type of high-risk, low (immediate) commercial return ventures are inherently unappealing to private commercial industries. Things like space exploration and basic research are long-term investments in the future of humanity. Private industries prefer short-term investments with immediate returns. That's why government agencies like NASA and publicly-funded research organizations like CERN are needed. Otherwise these tasks would never be undertaken.

        Lastly, it would probably speed up the process (of returning to the moon) if NASA hadn't decided to take all that publicly-funded space research/technology and auction it off to the highest bidder, basically turning it into private research (to be guarded as trade secrets) and proprietary technologies that are inaccessible to public researchers. I mean, we went from having no space program to landing on the moon in just under 11 years. Returning to the moon 4 decades later in 5 to 7 years really isn't that unreasonable—given that we're able to build on previously acquired knowledge and experience and actually have the motivation as a society to return to the moon.

        • by zogger ( 617870 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @12:27PM (#29405595) Homepage Journal

          Advanced rocket designs and navigation, etc just have too much military dual use potential to them to just wing it out public domain..unfortunately. Otherwise I agree with you, proly quite a bit of wheel reinventing going on now that really doesn't have to be. I think *most* government funded research should be open sourced, especially anything pertaining to medicine, but not that.

    • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:39AM (#29405293)

      The Google X-Prize is silly. The hard part of that prize is not the lander. The hard parts are getting your lander there in the first place, and the requisite high-bandwidth communications link back to Earth. Guidance when you can't use GPS is tricky, but easier than those two. (Detail work can be done inertially, but you also need a star tracker or similar baseline reference to work from.)

      Any serious contender for the GXP needs to be planning to do a couple test flights if they want a serious hope of winning the prize. Right now there is no way to put a significant payload in Low Earth Orbit on a budget that would make that feasible, let alone on a Lunar transfer orbit. Therefore, if you want to make back any reasonable fraction of your budget with the prize, you *also* have the distinctly nontrivial task of building your own launcher capable of getting to a Lunar transfer orbit.

      Now, that said, I fully expect to see Carmack and company build an orbital launcher one day. I expect that, after some development test flights, they'll get it working. But they won't do it on a schedule and budget that makes the GXP look anything other than laughably short-term.

    • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @01:11PM (#29405933)

      Perhaps, just perhaps, this will land on the moon within 2 years.

      They'd have to figure out how to get it on a rocket and to work on the Moon first. Doesn't sound like a two year project to me even if you have someone with deep pockets backing it.

      • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @10:03PM (#29409521) Journal
        They'd have to figure out how to get it on a rocket and to work on the Moon first. Doesn't sound like a two year project...
        Strange. I think that Musk's goal is to have transportation available to the moon very soon, rather than later. Why is he quietly working on a H2/LOX engine? Not likely for launch. At this time, he needs to have a number of places to send LVs to; Private Space Station, ISS, Lunar orbit, lunar surface, servicing of sats, etc. The only feasible way to do that is via a tug. I will be surprised if shortly after a falcon 9 successful launch, if he does not announce the tug along with a fuel depot. At that point, he will be shooting for the moon.
        • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @12:14AM (#29422401)

          I think that Musk's goal is to have transportation available to the moon very soon, rather than later.

          The problem here is why do you think "very soon" means within two years? They aren't moving fast enough now to do that IMHO. Look at the delays in the Falcon 9 this year (as well as having only launched 1 of 5 or 6 planned launches this year). That's not a sign of someone who wants to be putting things on the Moon in two years.

  • good... so far (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CarpetShark ( 865376 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:27AM (#29404467)

    They seemed to be attempting to land on the X, but gave up in the end. Having to put the thing out with a fire extinguisher is a bit worrying too. Otherwise, looks good.

    However, the article really shouldn't say "claims prize" when they just didn't fail. The comp isn't even over yet!

    • by Svartalf ( 2997 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:37AM (#29404509) Homepage

      Actually... The rules are a bit interesting...

      It's the first one to accomplish the ground rules correctly that wins the purse in question. This means there's a second prize shot at Level 1 and the two Level 1 ones were up for grabs. Now only the Level 1 and Level 2 second prizes are free. They did, in fact, win first place, being first at the Level 2 pass of things. It's only not over in the sense of all the purses not being won.

      • Re:good... so far (Score:5, Informative)

        by Narishma ( 822073 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:30AM (#29405241)

        That's not correct. First, they already won Level 1 last year, so there's only 2nd place of Level 1 available for grabs. This year the rules were changed a bit so that each team can try for the challenge at their home bases, and only Armadillo has so far. There are 2 other competitors that have yet to fly. If they succeed at the Level 2 then they will determine who gets first place by looking at who landed the closest to the center of the pad. So even though Armadillo succeeded, the other teams can still do better in theory and claim first place.

    • Re:good... so far (Score:5, Informative)

      by bcmm ( 768152 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:40AM (#29404525)
      It may be standard practise to put it out with an extinguisher. I was reading about a recent test of a much larger rocket (I forget the details), and it was suggested that it was doused with CO2 at the end not because it wouldn't burn out on its own, but to preserve the engine in whatever state it was at the end of the burn to allow more information to be extracted from it.
    • by Svartalf ( 2997 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:46AM (#29404547) Homepage

      As for the flames needing a fire extinguisher... Heh... I strongly suspect you'd have needed something along those lines for the primary thrusters on the Moon mission or the Space Shuttle rockets. Just because you cut off fuel flow, doesn't mean you don't have fuel still burning in the combustion chamber- you're just not supplying it any more when you do that. It's not like a jet engine or a car engine in several ways. And, I suspect that they put the fire out because of safety concerns rather than needing to. It'd burned for probably about another minute or so and then ran out of fuel in the chamber.

    • Re:good... so far (Score:5, Informative)

      by gclef ( 96311 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:46AM (#29404549)

      Wow...so many things wrong in so few sentences.

      1) They landed on the X (well, with the X within the space defined by the legs of the craft). In fact, the craft didn't move much horizontally in the last 30 seconds or so...it pretty much hovered over the X for long enough to meet the 180 sec limit.

      2) The flames were from the simulated lunar surface that it lit on fire, not the craft itself. If I were them, I wouldn't be too concerned with lighting the surface of the moon on fire...it seems unlikely.

      3) The contest is run in stages, and there are prizes for being the first (and second) team to finish each stage, so they did in fact claim a prize for being the first to finish stage 2 of the contest. Yes, there is still a stage 3, and there is a separate prize for being the first to finish stage 3.

      • by Hurricane78 ( 562437 ) <deleted@slashdo[ ]rg ['t.o' in gap]> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @10:35AM (#29404965)

        I wouldn't be too concerned with lighting the surface of the moon on fire...it seems unlikely.

        That's a bit of an understatement, considering that the moon has no athmosphere, let alone one out of oxygen. ;)

        • by Jared555 ( 874152 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:57AM (#29405393)

          Depending on the composition of a material it can burn in space but I doubt a moon/planet that has a massive quantity of oxidizer and fuel sources on the surface would stay that way very long. (All it would take would be heat generated by an impact, etc. to potentially set it off)

      • Re:good... so far (Score:3, Informative)

        by CarpetShark ( 865376 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:14AM (#29405165)

        The flames were from the simulated lunar surface that it lit on fire, not the craft itself.

        OK, but the simulated lunar surface looks a lot like concrete. Also, they seem to have some inside their engine, as that's where the flames are coming from ;)

      • Re:good... so far (Score:3, Informative)

        by lysergic.acid ( 845423 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @12:20PM (#29405537) Homepage

        Are you sure the flames were from the simulated lunar surface? It seemed to be coming out of the bottom of the rocket booster and then shooting towards the ground (3:15 in the first video). I think someone mentioned this was done intentionally to freeze the engine's state for further data collection purposes.

        Though it does look like the safety personnel sprays the extinguisher at both the lunar pad and the booster.

      • The launch pad is a form of concrete, and is not flammable.

        The flames are coming from inside the engine, the engine uses the fuel (alcohol) to flow through cooling channels to cool the injectors in the combustion chamber.

        When the main valves shut off, there's still some fuel remaining in the cooling channels and this tends to vapourise and burn off even after shutoff- but burning unevenly with the air, rather than the LOX. That's why it's a much cooler reddish flame rather than the much hotter blue flame exhaust in-flight.

      • by syousef ( 465911 ) on Monday September 14, 2009 @12:29AM (#29410285) Journal

        2) The flames were from the simulated lunar surface that it lit on fire, not the craft itself. If I were them, I wouldn't be too concerned with lighting the surface of the moon on fire...it seems unlikely.

        As there's no air on the moon, I'd call that the understatement of the century. Concern over a goblin eating the spacecraft or it disappearing into quantum nothingness might be better founded.

  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @08:43AM (#29404543) Journal

    If they want a shot at faking another moonlanding they really need to hire a better set designer, that didn't look anything like the moon!

  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @09:25AM (#29404681)

    on a rainy day at Caddo Mills, Texas ...

    Surely that alone invalidates a simulated moon landing? (as would any cross winds)

  • by WillRobinson ( 159226 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @09:29AM (#29404711) Journal

    Nice thrust vectoring! Congratulations to all at Armadillo Aerospace!

    My first thought was it was nice to see some money we spent years ago on Doom and the games built from that engine being put to good use.

    I wish I had the math programming skills the he so fluidly can poor out. Truly impressive.

    Second thought was John played to much lunar lander (ascii version) back in the day too. (chuckle)

  • by Froze ( 398171 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @09:38AM (#29404743) Homepage
    This is really good nerd news. Does anyone know of a more detailed account of the event? I used to follow their weekly news updates on all their internal progress and that was really enjoyable. However, it seems that lately they quit posting almost entirely, the last update was for May (http://www.armadilloaerospace.com/n.x/Armadillo/Home). I really wish there other technologically oriented blogs that detail development and results the way they do (did?).
  • by witherstaff ( 713820 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @10:48AM (#29405033) Homepage

    posted videos and images using social networking tools such as Twitter

    I didn't know you could fit videos or pictures in 140 characters. Did they use ascii art?

  • by bmorency ( 1221186 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:08AM (#29405133)
    Does anyone know how much money is needed to do a project like this? Is the $1 million more than enough to cover the cost?
  • by YourExperiment ( 1081089 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:11AM (#29405149)

    My girlfriend* just walked in the room and saw me watching the video of the successful flight. All she said was "No, you can't have one."

    To be fair, she was joking... I think.

    * Don't even think about it.

  • by chroma ( 33185 ) <chromaNO@SPAMmindspring.com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @11:29AM (#29405239) Homepage

    The summary is misleading. They didn't actually win the $1 million yet. Masten Space and Unreasonable Rocket are both going to have a crack at the prize and have until October 31 to best Armadillo's performance.

  • by EWAdams ( 953502 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @01:23PM (#29406003) Homepage

    Like, with slide rules?

    Next there'll be a prize to build some kind of circuit that allows us to add binary numbers together. After that we can try to find a way to use steam to pump water out of mines.

    Sheesh. At least they might have tried it with Martian conditions instead of lunar ones.

  • by Money for Nothin' ( 754763 ) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @01:24PM (#29406017)

    Not bad for a guy with no college degree!

    (Disclaimer: I do have a BSCS. But there is no way I could accomplish the things Carmack has. By the time he was my age, Carmack was working on Quake 3. *sigh*)

  • by Provocateur ( 133110 ) <shedied@@@gmail...com> on Monday September 14, 2009 @07:35AM (#29411859) Homepage

    So I hereby bestow upon him the title

    Official Rocket Launcher!

    The One. The Only.

  • by Baldrson ( 78598 ) * on Monday September 14, 2009 @12:26PM (#29415081) Homepage Journal
    This is just one more demonstration of the power of prizes for objective criteria -- as distinguished from "grand challenges" that are little more than RFQs.

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