October 26, 2007 1:05 PM PDT

X Prize Cup brings outer space to New Mexico

There will be rockets, more rockets and a moon lander.

Space entrepreneurs plan to exhibit a host of new technologies this weekend at the Wirefly X Prize Cup, in hopes of fueling a new age of rocket tourism and entertainment.

As part of the festivities, to be held through Sunday in New Mexico, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration may name a first-ever winner for its $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. That challenge, which went unmet last year, calls on teams to simulate a robotic rover landing on the moon.

Several private outfits will have news at the contest as well. On Friday, the Rocket Racing League, sort of a Nascar for rockets, said it has signed on three new teams to compete in its races scheduled for 2009, bringing its total team count to six. The company will also show a finalized rocket that league teams will test later this year in the Mojave desert and in exhibition races throughout the country in 2008.

RocketPlane Global, based in Oklahoma City, is also making a bigger push in the space tourism business. The company said Friday that it has re-engineered the design of its suborbital rocket, the Rocketplane XP, so it can be used to fly more tourists into suborbit. The plane now seats five passengers in an interior fashioned by renowned industrial designer Frank Nuovo, who's designed for companies such as BMW and Nokia.

Teachers in Space, a nonprofit project of the Space Frontier Foundation and the U.S. Rocket Academy, also said it will begin recruiting teachers to become astronauts and fly in space. The teachers will travel to space on flights donated by suborbital companies like RocketPlane so they can develop training programs for more teachers to follow.

Photos: Gearing up for the X Prize Cup

Hosted by the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, the X Prize Cup is in its third year at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the future home of a spaceport for suborbital commercial flights. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic will be a chief tenant of the spaceport, shuttling people into space on a two-hour, white-knuckle ride for $200,000. But before the industry takes off in the next couple of years, the X Prize Cup is largely aimed at generating public interest in future space tourism, with guests like astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

The main event of the X Prize Cup will be the Lunar Lander Challenge, a test of the design of rocket-propelled moon vehicles. In its second year, the contest requires teams to fly 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. Nine teams are expected to compete this year, as opposed to only one in 2006, Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, which got off the ground, but whose device's legs buckled upon landing, causing a fire.

Among the teams competing this year are Menlo Park, Calif.-based Acuity Technologies, Armadillo Aerospace and BonNova from Tarzana, Calif.

"We fully expect to award the $2 million purse this year in what will prove to be an exhilarating showdown between a number of very qualified teams," X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis said this summer.

Other big draws at the event are likely to be the RRL, where the company's co-founder Granger Whitelaw will talk up the racing league and show test flights on video. He said in an interview that he wants his league to grow at a manageable pace--with between 6 and 14 teams so it can control track design and safety.

The RRL is now building the rest of its rocket fleet and looking for sponsors and broadcast partners. It plans exhibition air shows next year in places like Houston, New Mexico, Florida and Las Vegas. Its three new teams are Rocket Star Racing, led by a former Navy test pilot and Net entrepreneur Todd White; Team Extreme Rocket Racing, from U.S. Navy pilot Bryan Schwartz; and Canada-based Beyond Gravity Rocket Racing.

Within the next month, Whitelaw said, the league will test fly the new rocket racer, X-Racer, in California's Mojave desert for the first time for the public. The rocket is unusual because it's made with a liquid oxygen kerosene engine, and it will be the second private rocket to fly into space--Elon Musk's Space X rocket was the first to fly into suborbit.

Whitelaw said the RRL's rocket may be the only engine that can be turned on and off during its flight. "This is a big technology advance," he said. "We put research and development into how we could give it different throttling capabilities."

"It's not really on air. Jets breath air, we just blow through it, so it's more efficient and can fly higher without loss issues on the engine," he added.

Unlike the RRL, RocketPlane plans to take tourists into suborbit. It has designed a new airframe that moves away from its former Learjet-based model to one that is even lighter and can accommodate more passengers in a "first-class seating arrangement," according to the company. The larger cabin will have more room for projects on scientific missions. The plane also has a new engine, new landing gear and more aerodynamic tail.

RocketPlane plans to take people on trips 100 kilometers above the Earth where they'll experience three minutes of weightlessness. It hasn't disclosed cost or when it plans to launch the service.

With all this on the horizon, industry proponents are hoping the possibility of traveling into space will get children excited again about learning science and math. Teachers in Space officials, for example, believe that if they can fly on the coattails of private industry's efforts, they will be able to bring lessons from space back to the classroom.

"Imagine hundreds of teachers from all parts of the country flying in space every year," Teachers in Space project manager Edward Wright said in a statement. "Imagine thousands of astronaut teachers in American schools, touching millions of students, in less than a decade. What impact would that have on education?"

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