New robot landers will be built by private rocket-makers

Under NASA's new space plan, commercial spacecraft and services have a larger role than before.

Tony Landis/NASA Dryden Flight Research Center/PRNewsFoto/Masten Space Systems/Newscom/File
Masten Space Systems' XA0.1B, or 'Xombie,' vehicle takes off on the second leg of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

Two California companies, one a rocket engine builder and the other a mock moon lander champion, have teamed up to develop new private unmanned vehicles that NASA could send to the moon, Mars and asteroids.

The companies are XCOR Aerospace, specializing in rocket engines, and Masten Space Systems — which won a $1 million NASA contest to build and fly robotic vehicles on simulated hops on the moon. The two companies hope to combine their areas of expertise in anticipation of NASA-sponsored unmanned lander projects, according a joint announcement this week.

"It seems like NASA may actually be interested in a commercial approach to landers," Michael Mealling, of Masten Space Systems, told Tuesday.

IN PICTURES: NASA's journey into the universe

Under NASA's new space plan proposed by President Barack Obama, commercial spacecraft and services have a larger role than before.

That new plan, if approved by Congress, would cancel NASA's earlier Constellation program in charge of new moon landers and other vehicles. The space agency's shuttle fleet is retiring later this year after two final missions.

Mealling said NASA may not be the only potential customer for the team's unmanned landing craft and technology. The swarm of private teams and groups competing in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize to send robot probes to the moon, move them around and beam back live video is another possibility, he said.

"There are Google Lunar Lander X Prize teams out there that might end up wanting some of this stuff too," Mealling said.

XCOR and Masten happen to be "next door neighbors" in California's Mojave Desert, said Dave Masten, founder and President of Masten Space Systems.

"We've worked together on many tactical problems over the years and our corporate cultures mesh well," Masten said in a statement. "Working together on something like this simply made too much sense."

XCOR Aerospace has created liquid oxygen (LOX)/Methane powered propulsion systems for NASA, and built similar engines for the public debut of the Rocket Racing League, which showcases NASCAR-style competitions in the sky.

But the Rocket Racing League later switched to engines made by Armadillo Aerospace for unknown reasons. XCOR disputed that its engines had any problems.

Masten Space Systems claimed a first prize for Level 2 of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in October 2009. The company's Xoie vehicle beat long-time front-runner Armadillo Aerospace, a Texas-based team led by video game developer John Carmack.

Both Masten and XCOR have proposed development of their own individual suborbital rocketships in the past, such as XCOR's Lynx concept. But now they look to jointly market their complementary skill sets and services to NASA as prime contractors, according to the joint statement.

"It's a no brainer, Dave's team is the absolute best New Space company when it comes to VTVL and autopilot unmanned operations — they demonstrated that in October by winning NASA's lander challenge," said Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR Aerospace, in a statement. "And we feel our LOX/methane engines are unsurpassed in the trade space today by anyone."

"We should bring this tandem set of best in class capabilities to NASA, it just makes sense for them and for us," Nelson concluded.

IN PICTURES: NASA's journey into the universe

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