SpaceShipOne repeats its feat

The craft wins the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private space travel when it reaches 100km for the second time. Photo gallery: A glimpse of SpaceShipOne's historic flights

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
2 min read
SpaceShipOne, the craft that breached the Earth's atmosphere last week, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private space travel on Monday when it repeated its feat of reaching 100km.

Just after 8 a.m. PDT, CNN reported that SpaceShipOne reached an altitude of 368,000 feet--well above the 328,000 feet, or 100km, minimum altitude required to win the prize.

The second voyage of Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures craft was an attempt to reach 100km, or 62 miles, in altitude, considered the edge of Earth and space. The craft first broke the 100km mark Wednesday, completing the first of two steps needed to win the prize.

The Ansari X Prize was started in 1996 to stimulate commercial space tourism. The prize includes $10 million for the first team to propel a spacecraft to 100km, land it and repeat the feat within two weeks.

About 24 other teams from six countries are trying to build their own spacecrafts but have not advanced as quickly as Mojave. Some concepts range from a design based on Nazi Germany's V-2 rocket to launching a spacecraft off a gigantic hot-air balloon.

As earlier reported, questions about a second launch arose after SpaceShipOne went into an uncontrollable spin moments before it reached its apex during the first launch. Members of the team were unable to explain the "roll" at first and could not immediately determine whether it was caused by a design flaw or pilot error.

In a statement on Saturday, SpaceShipOne's designer, Burt Rutan, explained that the rolls were effects from reaching the space barrier and not from common atmospheric effects, such as wind. For that reason, pilot Mike Melvill could not immediately stabilize the craft with controls that are more suited for airplanes.

Despite the stomach-wrenching roll, SpaceShipOne could become another step toward sending average people into space. Last week, Sir Richard Branson said he would begin offering space flights in 2007 with crafts based on SpaceShipOne's design. Travelers will pay Virgin Galactic, as Branson's business is dubbed, nearly $200,000 to fly out of Earth's atmosphere and experience the weightlessness of space.

Rutan, who conceived the idea of SpaceShipOne, used aircraft concepts in designing the spacecraft. A larger aircraft, called White Knight, carries the smaller SpaceShipOne under its belly and uses rockets to propel the tandem to an altitude of about 14km. Once it reaches that height, SpaceShipOne detaches, fires up its engine and then rockets up toward the required altitude.

SpaceShipOne then falls back to Earth by changing its wing configuration into "feather" mode, in which its wings fold to act like a kite. When the craft falls to a certain altitude in the Earth's atmosphere, the wings return to their original shape, and SpaceShipOne glides back to the runway.