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X Prize group plans new series of contests

Group that spurred efforts in privately financed space travel to reward technology breakthroughs in other fields.

The group that awarded $10 million this week to the winner of an outer-space travel contest is gearing up to offer cash prizes for technology breakthroughs in medicine, computer science, transportation and a number of other arenas.

The X Prize Foundation, creator of the Ansari X Prize for space tourism, announced the new series of innovation contests this week after awarding its first prize to Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures for piercing Earth's atmosphere twice in one week with its privately financed SpaceShipOne craft.

The group is teaming up with a think tank called the World Technology Network to administer the new awards, called the WTN X Prizes.

The competitions will be aimed at people "seeking to meet the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century," according to the WTN X Prize Web site. Those challenges could include finding a cure for cancer, AIDS or other major diseases; alleviating famine and environmental degradation; or making advances in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, according to the Web site.

The groups are soliciting suggestions for determining the rules and goals of the next contests from potential competitors and sponsors on the Web site and expect to announce the terms of the next competition in six months. The suggested cash awards in the online form range from $1 million to $100 million.

The success of SpaceShipOne, which is designed to safely transport human passengers to outer space and back, has led to speculation that mankind is on the verge of a new age of space tourism. Also feeding that idea is the Virgin Group. The company, which owns Virgin Airlines, has licensed spaceship technology from SpaceShipOne's designers and plans to become the first business to launch commercial passengers into space via its new Virgin Galactic unit.