For New Scientist
Oroville - Sept. 21, 2000
If you have an itch to fly into space and half a million dollars to spare, you may soon be able to nip down to the store and buy a spaceship in kit form. Once assembled, the craft, called the Kitten, will take you and two friends 200 kilometres up at a top speed of Mach 4. It's not quite Earth orbit, but who's counting?
"It should be as reliable as any other kit--a boat, a helicopter or a small private sub," says James Hill, president of Cerulean Freight Forwarding Company, based in Oroville, Washington, which plans to sell the kits.
Cerulean is the latest of 19 entrants into the X Prize competition, a contest which will award $10 million to the first private group to launch a reusable vehicle into space, defined as 100 kilometres up. In marketing the Kitten as a kit that enthusiasts can buy, Cerulean is going one better than its competition.
The idea may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Amateurs already build and fly kits for all kinds of aircraft, including helicopters and jet planes. The Kitten will be built from many off-the-shelf components that already have safety accreditation from the Federal Aviation Authority. This makes it easier to make sure the craft is safe, says Hill.
The ship will use engines made from ceramic materials and burn a mixture of methane and liquid oxygen, generating a maximum 3g of thrust. This should propel the craft through a sub-orbital hop, after which it will glide back to Earth like NASA's X-24 lifting body (shown above).
To save weight, compressed nitrogen will both cool the engines and power hydraulic systems, while a laptop computer with special software will help the pilot fly the craft. Because the Kitten won't reach orbit, it won't need a heavy heat shield for re-entry.
Hill says universities might buy the kit to run zero-gravity experiments or other space research. The first Kitten could even be ready in three years, if additional investors step forward.
"An amateur-built spaceship would probably face tough scrutiny from regulators," cautions Dick Knapinksi, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, an enthusiasts' group based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "At the very least, the US would have to waive the 18-kilometre ceiling that limits private pilots now, he says.
This article appeared in the September 16 issue of New Scientist New Scientist. Copyright 2000 - All rights reserved. The material on this page is provided by New Scientist and may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written authorization from New Scientist.Related Links
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