British Rocket Takes a Step Towards the X Prize

A British company took a small but successful step towards winning the $10 million X Prize with a successful rocket flight on Thursday 6th July.

Starchaser Industries, a small company based in Cheshire, UK, successfully flew its two-stage Starchaser-Discovery rocket to an altitude of 5,750 meters (19,000 feet) from Morecambe Bay, UK Thursday morning.

Solid-fuel motors accelerated the rocket from zero to 1,130 kmph (700 mph) in the first three seconds after liftoff, at which point the first stage separated. The second stage then fired and carried its payload, a small pod, to the peak altitude before parachuting back to Earth.

‘Everything went absolutely as planned,’ said Steven Bennett, CEO of Starchaser Industries, who has been launching small rockets since 1993. ‘We saw a perfect separation and return of the rocket.’

The six-meter (20-foot) rocket, described as the largest reusable research rocket ever built in Europe, is itself not intended to fly into space, but instead test an escape rocket that will be used on Thunderbird, the reusable suborbital rocket that Starchaser is developing.

The Thunderbird would feature a large single-stage rocket booster using liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants. It would carry a payload module, capable of holding up to three people, to an altitude of at least 100 km (62 miles) before parachuting back to Earth.

With this successful test, Bennett believes that his company is on track to compete for the X Prize as soon as next year. ‘I am very optimistic that we will launch our first piloted rocket by the end of 2001,’ he said. The Thunderbird could be carrying passengers by mid-2003 if those flights are a success.

Not revealed, though, is either the estimated cost of developing and building Thunderbird and how much funding the company needs to meet those costs.

At stake for Starchaser is the $10 million X Prize. First announced in the mid-1990s, the prize will be awarded to the team that develops a reusable rocket — without government support — that can carry three people to an altitude of at least 100 km twice in a two-week period. Such a prize, organizers believe, will help stimulate interest in space tourism and other applications of suborbital reusable spacecraft.

Seventeen teams, including Starchaser, are competing for the X Prize. While the $10-million prize is not yet fully funded, X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis said at a space tourism conference in Washington last month that the X Prize Foundation is in negotiations to raise the remainder of the prize money.