Published online 23 October 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news061023-4

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Space elevator stuck at ground level

NASA keeps its cash as X-Prize Cup fails to find a winner.

The University of Michigan's MClimber became the first to get to the top of the tether - but at 6 minutes and 40 seconds it was too slow to win.The University of Michigan's MClimber became the first to get to the top of the tether - but at 6 minutes and 40 seconds it was too slow to win.

It was a showcase of high-tech space technology, but this weekend's X-Prize Cup was cursed by mis-directed post, mis-measured competition equipment and entrants that nearly blew away in the wind.

In the end, there were no winners in the competitions for lunar landers and space elevators (see 'Race to space in New Mexico'). Indeed, most entrants got nowhere near the winning post.

In the $200,000 competition to build a strong, two-metre loop of nanotube material weighing less than two grams, only one entrant met the length requirement, let alone the more testing criteria. And this loop, developed by Astroaraneae, a team of employees of the aerospace company Aerojet, based in Sacramento, California, was weaker than NASA's house-brand material.

The $200,000 prize money for the space-elevator climber competition also went unclaimed. Strong winds scuppered Friday's competition, by making the 15-cm wide climbing ribbon twist violently. "Those teams that went for ultra lightweight have built, in essence, some very big, expensive kites," wrote Ted Semon in his official space elevator blog.

Saturday was calmer, and six teams qualified. But none did enough to win the prize.

What goes up

The nearest miss was from the Space Design Team at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada: its climber shinned up the ribbon in 58 seconds.

That seemed to be a winning time for the 60-metre-long ribbon, as the climber had to travel at no less than one metre per second. But confusingly the games organizers announced they weren't sure whether their ribbon was actually 50 or 60 metres long.

This became immaterial when it transpired that the climber had become stuck on its way down, and so failed the requirements for a controlled descent.

Other climbers powered by beams of microwaves or infrared light were grounded by the airport hosting the games, because the beams were too similar to radar.

And a courier company lost the Spanish team Recens's climber somewhere in Kentucky.

Must come down

Rockets fared no better. The hot — indeed, only — favourite to win the lunar lander challenge was Pixel, built by John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace in Mesquite, Texas. All the other competitors bowed out before the games began.

Pixel had a successful outward journey, launching, hovering and landing as required, albeit damaging itself on landing.

But it fell over and crashed on the return leg, missing out on $350,000 prize money for the first stage of the competition and ruining any chance of winning the $1 million up for grabs in the harder stage two, in which the lander had to hover for twice as long and land on a rockier surface.

"Pixel is probably not going to fly again," Carmack is reported to have said after the crash. "It's down for the count."

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Before the games began, there was optimism that someone would win something this year. Semon gave space elevators a 50-50 chance. And Carmack said on his own website in early October: "If we had a couple more months it would look certain, but we are getting down to the wire now," adding, "I'm fairly confident that it will work, though."

The X-Prize cup wasn't completely bereft of winners: police officer Mike Reyes won the raffle. And NASA can hold onto its cash until everyone tries again next year.

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