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Double calamity for X Prize contenders

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Aug 10, 2004 9:40 am
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NewScientist.com: Two low-cost rockets vying for the $10 million Ansari X Prize have failed spectacularly within a day of each other. The calamities have probably cost both team their chances of winning, as the prize expires at the end of 2004.

A 1.2-metre-wide rocket designed by John Carmack, creator of the hugely successful Doom video games, crashed about 20 seconds after launch in Texas on 7 August.
The next day, a 1-metre-wide rocket designed by Space Transport Corporation of Forks, Washington, exploded after reaching a height of about 300 metres in the state’s Olympia National Park. No one was aboard either rocket.

“You always hope for perfection, but we’re not surprised when we have crashes like this,” says Carmack, lead engineer and funder of Armadillo Aerospace. He says prototypes of his company’s hydrogen peroxide-fuelled rocket, Black Armadillo, have now crashed “spectacularly” four times out of a total of about 35 tests. But he says the crashes are not complete losses.
“The failure did give us some demonstration data that we always sort of wanted to get (but not that bad)”, reads a statement on the company’s website.

Full throttle

Black Armadillo’s latest breakdown occurred when the rocket ran out of fuel about 180 metres into the air during the engine’s first full-throttle test.

Inspection of the wreckage revealed propellant had leaked out around a warped plate on the bottom of the engine. The plate was probably deformed by frequent use and jostling on the drive to the launch site near the company’s headquarters in Mesquite, Texas.

The rocket started to rotate when it ran out of gas, hitting the ground sideways about 8 metres from its launch site.

Carmack says that touchdown supports an earlier decision not to land the rocket with parachutes, which could carry the vehicle more than 100 kilometres off course. “The advantage of powered landing is if something goes wrong, it falls right under where it was launched,” he told New Scientist.

The crash cost the team a $35,000 rocket and a chance at the Ansari X Prize. The $10 million will go to the first privately funded craft that can carry three people to a height of 100 kilometres twice in two weeks.

Holding out

“Scaled Composites is going to win,” Carmack says matter-of-factly, referring to a competing team that has already launched a craft to the edge of space and will officially compete for the prize in September.

“But we still had been holding out,” he told New Scientist. The latest crash means a six-week delay to assemble a new rocket. And that, along with trouble finding an affordable launch site licensed for vertical takeoffs and landings from space, means “there’s basically no way we could make X Prize flights this year”, he says.

But both teams say they will continue to work on their rockets despite the setbacks. Carmack is looking into sensors that can detect fuel levels before launch. And from now on he will focus on smaller rockets – capable of lofting one person into space rather than the X Prize’s required three.

Eric Meier, co-founder of Space Transport Corporation, says he hopes to launch another $20,000 rocket within the next two months. “It’s not over until it’s over,” he says of the X Prize.

But he told New Scientist: “There’s a much bigger prize out there than the $10 million – space tourism. Humanity always has and always will rise to challenges such as travelling in space.”

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