Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Rocket planes seek market share

Lynx (XCOR)
The Lynx has room for two people

California-based company XCOR has released details of the rocket plane it hopes will capture a sizeable share of the future space tourism market.

The Lynx vehicle will carry one pilot and a ticketed passenger above 60km.

It will be competing with Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson and aerospace giant EADS Astrium - both of whom have designs on the emerging niche market.

XCOR says its plane will operate several times a day, and will also eventually deliver payloads into space.

"We have designed this vehicle to operate much like a commercial aircraft," said XCOR chief executive officer, Jeff Greason.

"Its liquid fuel engines will provide the enhanced safety, durability, reliability and maintainability that keep operating costs low."

XCOR expects the Lynx to be flying by 2010; commercial service shortly after.

SpaceShipTwo (Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson's vehicle is based on the SpaceShipOne design
The Virgin vehicle, based on the record-breaking SpaceShipOne rocket plane, should be in the skies at about the same time - although it aims to go higher, above 100km.

Astrium, which also builds the Ariane 5 rocket, believes its vehicle will be in service some years after 2010. All entrants expect the market for suborbital trips will be worth at the very least hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Astrium's research suggested a mature market would see 15,000 individuals a year paying substantial sums to ride above the atmosphere. Like Virgin, it envisages the first tickets will be expensive - about $200,000, maybe more.

XCOR hopes that its approach can substantially reduce that price.

The Lynx is slightly smaller than a business jet at just 8.5m (27.9 feet) in length.

"She takes off and lands like an airplane, using only rocket power. However, it's airframe is designed from scratch to take advantage of the rocket," Mr Greason explained at a media conference on Wednesday.

Astrium space plane (EADS Astrium)
EADS Astrium believes the market is bigger than many people recognise
"It gives that vehicle the performance to fly off the ground to the edge of space, providing people a view of the bright sky above, and letting them look at the Earth and the atmosphere below."

The Lynx will fly initially from the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California.

"Lynx will be the 'greatest ride off Earth'," said XCOR test pilot and former space shuttle commander Col Rick Searfoss.

"The acceleration, the weightlessness, and the view will provide you with an experience that is out of this world. And the best part of it all is that you'll ride right up front, like a co-pilot, instead of in the back, like cargo."

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