SpaceShipOne went into space for the second time in two weeks on Monday, the first privately manned spacecraft to do so, and secured the $10m Ansari X-prize.
The spacecraft was taken to 50,000ft by its mother ship, White Knight, where it was released.
At this point pilot Brian Binnie ignited SpaceShipOne’s rocket and the craft climbed to 111km (368,000ft) – well into space – before returning to Earth. This followed its space flight last week, piloted by Mike Melville, when it reached 103km (337,000ft).
The X-prize Foundation created the $10m prize in an attempt to encourage space tourism through competition among entrepreneurs and space technology experts. The prize was conceived to reward the team that designed the first private spaceship to fly successfully to a sub-orbital altitude of just over 100km on two consecutive flights within two weeks. The head of the foundation, Peter Diamandis, has announced it will begin hosting an annual competition.
SpaceShipOne’s thrust is provided by nitrous oxide and rubber. A fuel tank 6ft in diameter at the centre of the craft holds liquid nitrous oxide, with a hollow tube leading from the tank to the engine nozzle, filled with solid rubber. The combustive combination produces thousands of pounds of thrust, although the exact amount remains a secret.
Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson announced last week that he has signed a £14m deal to secure the first commercial flights into space. The deal is with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the company set up by SpaceShipOne developer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
The project will license Rutan’s company Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne technology for commercial flights, with prices starting at £115,000. Branson believes that Virgin Galactic could be flying up to 3,000 people into space within five years.