Two teams, one American and one Canadian, are poised to capture the Ansari X Prize by mid-October, having announced initial launch dates of their privately funded suborbital space vehicles within days of each other. The first team to complete two flights to an altitude of 100 km (approximately 62 miles) within two weeks in a reusable vehicle carrying the weight of three people will win the $10 million prize set by the X Prize Foundation in 1996.
The Mojave Aerospace Ventures team, consisting chiefly of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, will launch its SpaceShipOne (SS1) on its first official X Prize flight on September 29. Pilot Mike Melvill took SS1 to an altitude of 328,491 feet (491 feet above 100 km) on June 21 to achieve the first privately funded manned flight into space. Carried to an altitude of 40,000 feet by a uniquely shaped composite twin-engine jet called White Knight, SS1 uses a hybrid rocket motor fueled with tire rubber and nitrous oxide to reach suborbital altitudes and a high-drag “feather” configuration to slow the aircraft during reentry. Rutan plans to make three launches within the two-week time period, all from Mojave Airport.
The da Vinci Project, a group of volunteers based in Toronto, intends to make its first official X Prize launch on October 2 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan. The da Vinci Project will launch its Wild Fire kerosene and liquid oxygen rocket, piloted by team leader and aeronautical engineer Brian Feeney, from an unmanned five-million-cubic-foot helium-filled balloon at an altitude of 80,000 feet to reach a maximum altitude of 120 km. The craft will deploy a high-drag “ballute” to decelerate for re-entry. Several companies have contributed to the da Vinci Project funding, including Sun Microsystems, Ansys and GoldenCasino.com.