The Electric Rocket That May Put A Robotic Inchworm On The MoonS

Here's the "underdog" electric-powered rocket that just may conquer the Moon and win Google's $30 million Lunar X Prize. The Lunatrex rocket uses a slow-but-steady approach, taking months instead of days to reach the Moon.

Google's Lunar X Prize requires teams to put a robot on the moon, have it travel at least 500 meters across the lunar surface, and send high-definition photos back to Earth. There are 17 teams competing for the $30 million jackpot.

The Lunatrex team's approach involves having a rocket build up speed while orbiting the Earth, before finally shooting off towards the Moon. The slow approach means you'd have weeks, not minutes, to make course corrections. Lunatrex is using an electric engine that shoots out a stream of charged particles to accelerate slowly, which has already worked well in probes like Deep Space 1 and the Dawn probe.

Lunatrex's lunar robot designs are also unconventional: one is an earthworm-shaped bot that would use piezoelectric "muscles" to scoot across the lunar surface. Another isocahedron-shaped robot would have 12 legs that could move in any direction — and the legs could double as transceiver antennae. Lunatrex is a consortium of aerospace companies, plus the University of Dayton, OH.

It's exciting to see somebody putting money and thought into coming up with innovative methods of traveling into space, some of which will hopefully benefit space exploration for decades to come. At the same time, it's a little worrisome to see Google's millions going into a contest to encourage entrepreneurs to litter our orbit with even more masses of space junk from the various failed attempts to snag the prize. Future space probes will have to have extra-dextrous steering mechanisms to avoid the debris of today's whiz-bang lunar vehicles. [Space.com]