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Sci-Fi Space Drive May Get Private Rocket to Moon

Nearly 40 years after Americans first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 with NASA's historic Apollo 11 flight, a host of private rocketeers are hoping to follow to win a $30 million prize. Here, SPACE.com looks at Lunatrex, one of 17 teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize:

Lunatrex may have considered itself an underdog in the race for the Google Lunar X PRIZE, but the team now realizes that its slow-but-steady approach just might work.

"I feel very good about our team's chances," said Pete Bitar, Lunatrex team leader. "Our approach is very sober, very realistic, with plenty of margin and room for error ... it's got risks, but the risks all have hedges."

That approach is encapsulated in the team's plan to use an electric propulsion engine to reach the moon over several months, rather than days.

Spacecraft such as Deep Space 1 and the Dawn probe have used such engines — also known as ion drives — to shoot a stream of charged particles out and slowly accelerate.

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Once the spacecraft reaches the moon, the Google Lunar X Prize requires teams to land a robot on the moon, move at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and beam high definition views back to Earth.

The Lunatrex spacecraft would build up speed in Earth orbit before setting off for its lunar destination, giving the team plenty of time to adjust if needed.

"For any course correction you have weeks, not minutes," Bitar told SPACE.com, pointing out that the gradual response contrasts with short missions that need many things to happen in a short amount of time.

Other advantages include using tested off-the-shelf technology, which again reduces the mission risks. Electric propulsion engines also use less fuel than conventional engines, which would cut both fuel and launch costs for Lunatrex.

"Our approach made sense not just to us, but to a lot of bigger players too," Bitar noted. "Both from a business development and launch attempt, we're taking it very cautiously."

Perhaps the most unusual features of the Lunatrex plan involve the rovers. One rover concept resembles an inchworm that uses piezoelectric "muscles" to scoot along the lunar surface.

Another rover could use an icosahedrons shape with 12 telescoping legs that slowly "walk" in any direction – the legs would handily double as the transceiver antennae.

Bitar did not rule out more conventional rovers, but emphasized a final design the size of a shoebox. Either way, the rover in whatever form would shoot high definition video in multiple directions to create a 360 degrees composite view.

The team is focusing on "far and away the hardest part" of achieving a successful moon landing, but even a failed landing attempt would not scuttle its plans.

"If we're successful in orbiting the moon, and for some reason the landing fails, you've done 85-90 percent of the work in the minds of a lot of people," Bitar observed. "We may take a second shot at the prize if we have enough confidence from the market."

Lunatrex has even declared it may launch multiple lunar missions anyway, in an attempt to snag both first and second place for the X PRIZE and take the entire $30 million purse.

However, the team clearly has ambitions beyond the X PRIZE.

"It's a two-pronged mission," Bitar said. "We're obviously competing for the X PRIZE, but along the way we want to come up with as many things to hedge out bets and create an income stream down the road."

The team's business approach stems from Bitar's experience heading companies that have attracted attention with big ideas. Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems landed several U.S. military contracts in the past to develop unusual non-lethal weapons, while Airbuoyant has begun selling the VertiPod, an ultralight vehicle with the capabilities of a personal helicopter.

Lunatrex hopes to land both small and big partners with their low cost approach, but Bitar won't rely only on funding from partners and sponsors. He has promised that proceeds from VertiPod sales will go towards lifting Lunatrex moonward.

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