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Carmack's X-Prize rocket explodes on pad

Aspirations doomed for another year

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The sole remaining contender to win a prize for privately-built rocket lander systems exploded yesterday, ending hopes that the prize might be won this year.

Following the 2004 victory of the famous SpaceShip One in the Ansari X-Prize race to build the first private suborbital craft, tech prizes have proliferated. Governments and private sector sponsors alike have seen the contests as a relatively cheap way of stimulating independent talent to produce new kit.

In the case of the $2m Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, NASA and Northrop put up the prize money and the event is run by the X Prize Foundation. The idea is to "simulate trips between the moon's surface and lunar orbit".

This is done by achieving two short out-and-back hops between a pair of pads 100 metres apart here on Earth, rising to 50 metres during the trip. Rocket propulsion has to be used, the Moon having no atmosphere, and the vehicle has to hover for a minimum of 90 seconds. The competition has a Level I event with smooth pads, and a Level II with rough, lumpy Lunar-style landing areas.

In the end, only the team led by wealthy games developer John Carmack was actually ready to compete this year. The Armadillo Aerospace MOD-1 rocket made four Level I attempts over the weekend, but was dogged by technical snags and never achieved the minimum baselines. On the fourth and final try, according to the X Prize Foundation, "the engine exploded on ignition, resulting in a small fire and the flight was aborted".

It was a second year of heartache for Carmack, as his Pixel rocket almost scooped the cash in 2006.

"This was a weekend of outstanding competition," said Dr William Gaubatz, Lunar Lander Challenge judge.

"We believe Armadillo set some records in terms of reusability. We hope they carry on and inspire other teams to shoot for the prize and new records." ®

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