Saturday, May 13, 2006

Science Saturday II: Beam Me Up, Scotty

You're not going to be able to book a junket to Titan anytime soon, but the era of private spaceflight is upon us, reports The Economist:

This week, while researchers were bemoaning the forthcoming slashing of NASA's scientific budget in favour of the agency's manned programme, yet more riches were coming forth for human spaceflight. A prize of $2m was announced for NASA's Lunar Lander Analogue Challenge. It will go to a vehicle with the energy and accuracy (though obviously not the overall spaceworthiness) needed to land on the surface of the moon. This will need a VTOL spaceship, which can take off, hover and land on a rocky site.

The first competition for this prize will be held in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in October this year during an event called the X-Prize cup. This is a series of about 30 rocket races that will be held on a three-dimensional track in the sky—like Formula 1 racing on steroids. It is the brainchild of Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X-Prize, a $10m purse won by SpaceShipOne as the first reusable suborbital vehicle. Mr Diamandis's long-term goal is for his rocket racers to race right into space. On the way to this goal, he hopes that this annual event—like the Formula 1 races which inspired it—will make a great deal of money.

He also reckons that a “Darwinian explosion” of suborbital designs is emerging. Each design, it seems, has its own merits. Several are expected to start test flights soon. Which will be first to market is unclear. Some may run out of funding. But with spaceships now costing less than a Formula 1 racing car, and having the interest of a variety of deep-pocketed investors, it shouldn't take that long.
Pretty cool, eh?

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