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To design and build a rocket capable of reaching the moon costing $5,000 or less for all hardware and software.

In 2010, our group (Lunar Robotics) entered the Google XPrize competition. The goal of the competition is to land a small robot on the moon. During the research and preparation for the contest, we made two discoveries that could have a huge potential impact on the future of unmanned space travel.

Our team consists of five engineers - two software engineers, two mechanical engineers, and one rocket engineer (aka, the Rocket Scientist). We each have over ten years experience in our respective fields (some of use have over 20 years).

We have made a few successful launches, in 2010 and earlier in 2011. When we entered the competition, we had a financial backer. Unfortunately, the economy has changed for our backer. We have withdrawn from the competition due to lack of funding.

However, we believe our two discoveries are worthy of pursuit, and could mean that anyone can build their own moon rocket, in their own backyard, for $5,000 or less.

What did we discover? When a rocket is launched from the ground, the rocket must not only fight gravity, but it most also fight air friction. As the rocket gains in altitude, it has less and less air friction to fight against. A large quantity of a rocket's fuel is spent simply fight air friction.

In the 1950's and 1960's, the US Air Force experimented with, and successfully launched rockets from specially designed high altitude balloons. The USAF eventually closed the project, because as the rockets got larger, the balloons would need to many times larger. One successful launch, had a balloon with a diameter of 250 feet!

We quickly realized that unmanned rockets, especially ones carry small cargo payloads, could still be used today. We tested several launches using off-the-shelf high-altitude weather balloons (capable of achieving heights of 100,000 - 150,000 feet).

Our second discovery was the type of rocket fuel used. The majority of modern rockets use liquid fuel. The advantage of liquid fuel is that it compresses (relatively) easily, and has more energy than an equivalent volume of solid fuel.

The disadvantage of liquid fuel is safety and stability. Most types of liquid rocket fuel must be kept below freezing, require high pressure, and the smallest leak or accident could mean a massive explosion. History is rife with liquid rocket fuel accidents.

In the course of our research, we found an off-the-shelf solid state rocket fuel, which provided its own oxidizer. This is important, because space does not contain oxygen, a necessary ingredient for combustion. This fuel has a constant burn rate, is easy to use and transport, requires no special license to use (below a certain volume), and is safe and stable.

Our Goal - The goal of our project is build a rocket capable of reaching the moon, for $5,000 or less. The main expense (approx 75%) for the rocket is the fuel, so a key component of this project is identifying alternative fuel sources or recombinations of existing sources which result in lower cost.

We will be using the latest technologies to assist us in our project. One goal is to create as many parts as possible using 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machines. When at all possible, we will off-the-shelf hardware and software, to make this as easy and cost-effective as possible for you to recreate.

FAQ

  • We're using a special mixture of Ammonium dinitramide { NH4N(NO2)2 } with a binder of GAP (glycidyl azide polymer). The binder not only keeps the mixture together, but provides for additional oxygen molecules, which is critical for propulsion in space.

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  • We are currently putting together a website which will provide step-by-step instructions, along with the parts list, and links for purchasing the materials. In addition, we will provide kits for anyone who does not want to do the individual part shopping.

    For any 3D printed part and parts which are cut with a laser cutter or CNC, we will provided STL or other appropriate CAD files. We will also provide these items in the kits.

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  • This was asked in a private email, but I thought it was a good question to add to the FAQ.

    First, 75% of the funding does not go to fuel. For a long-range rocket, 75% of the cost of the rocket goes to fuel. We're working on ways to reduce this cost, by innovating the launch platform (as explained above with the rockoon), by tweaking the rocket fuel formula, by changing the design of the rocket body itself, and by modifying trajectory and ignition patterns. There are other areas we're working on as well, but these are the big ones.

    Between now and Dec 2012, we plan a minimum of one launch per month (so at least 12 launches). Most launches are not designed to reach to the moon, but are designed to reach approx 350,000km (LEO altitude is about 200,000 km), and have the goal of testing the new technologies we're working on. Some launches will test communication modules (very important if you want to track your rocket as it arrives to the moon), some will test navigation control, and all will be testing rocket fuel mixtures and ignition patterns.

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  • The rockets are one way only, by design. Adding the necessary electronic equipment and fuel for a return flight from the moon would considerably increase the size and weight of the rocket. This would add to the amount of fuel required at launch (the fuel for the return flight, plus the fuel to cover the weight of the new fuel, plus fuel to cover the weight of the additional electronics, etc).

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  • Most of our launches will have the goal of reaching 350,000 km (Low Earth Orbit is approximately 200,000 km). We are working on the delivery method of the rewards for LEO, and may experiment with each method during launches.

    Currently, we have two methods of delivery. One method is to have a separate module which detaches from the rocket as it achieves LEO altitude. The second method is orient the rocket, as it approaches it peak, so that it "falls" into LEO over time.

    The advantage of the first method allows the rocket to travel farther per test, but the disadvantage is that the delivered items will most likely not be "in orbit". They will be at LEO altitude, but they will not have a velocity which allows them to maintain that altitude for a long period of time.

    The advantage of the second method is that the reward items will achieve a degrading orbit, so will remain in space longer. However, this adds to the complexity of the rocket for short-length flights, as we will need to add additional navigation controls to steer the rocket into a degrading orbit once the peak has been achieved.

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  • Yes, we have two HD video cameras that will be on each flight. In addition, we use a ground-based DSLR camera for fast-action photos of the flight and launch. Videos and photos will be made available here and on our new website.

    NOTE: these are small cameras, which we have already purchased (in bulk). the cost of these cameras is not part of the project funding, as we've already purchased these cameras.

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    - postcard sized letter written by you, delivered to low earth orbit altitude - 3oz item of your choice, carried to space on one of our launches. Note, this item will not be returned to you - Invitation to attend and/or participate in one of our launches - 1oz item of your choice, delivered to the moon. Note, this item cannot be returned to you

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    - postcard sized letter written by you, delivered to low earth orbit altitude - 3oz item of your choice, carried to space on one of our launches. Note, this item will not be returned to you - Invitation to attend and/or participate in one of our launches - 1oz item of your choice, delivered to the moon. Note, this item cannot be returned to you - Your name or logo displayed on our rocket for one flight. We will provide HD pics and video of the name/logo prior to launch, and during ignition (if possible)

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    - postcard sized letter written by you, delivered to low earth orbit altitude - 3oz item of your choice, carried to space on one of our launches. Note, this item will not be returned to you - Invitation to attend and/or participate in one of our launches - 3oz item of your choice, delivered to the moon. Note, this item cannot be returned to you - Your name or logo displayed on our rocket for all flights. We will provide HD pics and video of the name/logo prior to launch, and during ignition (if possible)

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    - Your very own Lunar Rocket Kit! Once we have completed the development of the final rocket, we will send you all materials, instructions, supplies, and parts you need to send your rocket to the moon. - postcard sized letter written by you, delivered to low earth orbit altitude - 3oz item of your choice, carried to space on one of our launches. Note, this item will not be returned to you - Invitation to attend and/or participate in one of our launches - 3oz item of your choice, delivered to the moon. Note, this item cannot be returned to you - Your name or logo displayed on our rocket for all flights. We will provide HD pics and video of the name/logo prior to launch, and during ignition (if possible)

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Funding period

- (45 days)