October 20, 2006 9:24 AM PDT

Space festival ready for takeoff

The space races are entering their second year.

The second annual space show known as the X Prize Cup kicks off Friday in the Rio Grande city of Las Cruces, N.M, revving up a new age of commercial space events and vehicles.

A slew of exhibits and events are slated for Friday and Saturday, including: two competitions to test new lunar vehicles; the unveiling of a new Nascar-like rocket; and NASA challenges for putting space elevators into orbit. Organizers of the event, the X Prize Foundation, expect the number of attendees to double from last year's 10,000 visitors in Las Cruces, which is home to the Whole Enchilada Festival.

X Prize Cup

The X Prize Foundation is famous for its first competition, the Ansari X Prize. In October 2004, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, built and flew the world's first private aircraft into space twice in two weeks to win the $10 million Ansari prize. Following that feat, the foundation created the annual space show in partnership with the Economic Development Department for the state of New Mexico.

Some of the events scheduled Friday and Saturday at the Las Cruces International Airport include the following:

•  The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge will test the design prowess of several teams that have built rocket-propelled moon vehicles. Teams will compete for a $2 million prize in two rounds, one Friday and another Saturday. The winners must fly their vehicle at least 50 meters in altitude, and then land vertically within 100 meters of the takeoff point, thereby simulating a landing on the lunar surface. The contest is part of NASA Centennial Challenges.

•  Another main event is the Space Elevator competition, also presented by NASA Centennial Challenges. Teams compete for prize money of $400,000 to design materials and technology that can transport payloads back and forth from Earth to orbit. The contest has two parts: One deals with the climber, a machine that must travel the length of a tethered cord. And the other deals with building a strong tether material that could hold the climber into orbit.

•  The Rocket Racing League, a new sporting event for competing spacecraft, was expected to host its first race at the X Prize Cup, given that the RRL's co-founder Peter Diamandis is also founder of the X Prize Foundation. But the engine for the league's marquee rocket was not ready in time. So instead, the RRL will unveil its new aircraft, the X-Racer, without racing it.

•  Of course, this contest is part air show and part exhibition, as well. The festival will also feature food, beer gardens and exhibitors. The da Vinci Project, for example, will showcase a new rocket for manned commercial space flight. Other notables are a virtual reality skydiving game and a mock-up of new generation rockets.

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