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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 August, 2004, 21:15 GMT 22:15 UK
Second team goes for space prize
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

Wild Fire rocket (Image: Da Vinci Project)
The rocket will be hot on the heels of SpaceShipOne
A Canadian team has said it will challenge SpaceShipOne for the Ansari X-Prize by sending its privately-funded craft to space on 2 October.

The da Vinci Project is vying with Burt Rutan's craft, and 23 other teams, to win the $10m (5.7m) prize.

It rewards the first team to send a non-government, three-person craft over 100km into space, and repeat the feat in the same craft in two weeks.

The da Vinci team publicly unveiled its spacecraft, Wild Fire VI, in Toronto.

Burt Rutan, the man behind Scaled Composites which developed SpaceShipOne, had told BBC News Online just hours before da Vinci's announcement that he welcomed the team's attempt.

"I like the fact that there is competition, certainly," he said.

"I think it's interesting the ones who have got the farthest in this race both have the same type of engine, and both have decided to do an air launch."

Same rocket

He said later he was quite surprised by the announcement because he had understood the da Vinci team had funding issues.

Pilot and head of the da Vinci Project based in Toronto, Brian Feeney, said the team was finalising the rocket's construction, as well as logistical details for the flight which will take place in Kindersley, Saskatchewan.

The bright red Wild Fire rocket is SpaceShipOne's closest rival for the space jackpot.

SpaceShipOne already became the first privately-funded manned spacecraft to reach space when it flew to 100.12km (328,491ft) on 21 June.

WhiteKnight carries SpaceShipOne (Scaled Composites image)
SpaceShipOne already went to space in June
It gave the X-Prize Foundation the required 60-days' notice of its intended X-Prize attempts at the end of July; the first is scheduled for 29 September, with an intended second attempt on 4 October.

This means Wild Fire's first attempt for the prize will be two days before SpaceShipOne's second flight.

Mr Rutan told BBC News Online he would consider closer to the time whether to move SpaceShipOne's flight date - but it seemed unlikely.

The da Vinci team's craft is designed to be launched from a reusable, drifting helium balloon from an altitude of 80,000ft (24.4km).

At that point, Wild Fire's rocket engines will fire up and send the craft to the target height of 100km - the official boundary of space. It lands using parachutes.

The da Vinci project leader Mr Feeney had said in an earlier announcement that his team needed $500,000 more to be able to reach a stage at which it could give the X-Prize its 60-day launch notice.

At Thursday's press conference, Mr Feeney said the team had secured sponsorship from Golden Palace.Com, the world's largest online gambling site.

'Little guys'

To Mr Rutan and others, the importance of the X-Prize is to show how important it is for the "little guy", commercial companies in competition, to fly manned space flights.

"This is a big deal, because once you do it in competition, then by definition [space tourism] will become as affordable as possible," he said.

He has predicted that mass space tourism for thousands could happen within 10 to 15 years, for around the same price of an US-style SUV vehicle - about $30,000 (17,000).

It also encourages the development of reusable space aviation technology.

The prize stipulates that teams must send a three-person craft above 100km and repeat the flight in the same vehicle within two weeks.

Dangerous place

Both SpaceShipOne and Wild Fire are reusable craft, and run on laughing gas and rubber as fuel.

According to Wild Fire's team, the alternative of fuelling a massive ground launched rocket is expensive and technologically complex; SpaceShipOne's pioneer agrees.

"I have always felt the most dangerous place to fly a rocket is as it lifts off from the ground," commented Mr Rutan on the da Vinci Project.

"So we have both recognised there is an enormous safety aspect of not launching from the ground."

It is not reusable or an economically viable answer to repeatedly fly to space, the da Vinci team has stated.

The UK contender for the X-Prize, Starchaser Industries, is planning a ground-launched rocket, however.

It plans to attempt a space flight in the next 18 months,

Starchaser Industries congratulated the Da Vinci project on their roll-out and wished them good luck with the launch.

Da Vinci is the largest volunteer technology project in Canadian history.

It has 600 volunteers and about 150,000 man-hours have been spent developing the craft to take them into space in the last eight years.

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