“Gentlemen, we don’t have any money, so we are going to have to think.” So said the physicist Ernest Rutherford, and this phrase seems to have become the motto of what is probably the world’s smallest – and certainlyone of the oddest – space programmes. The N-Prize, launched in April 2008 by Cambridge scientist Dr Paul Dear, has recently registered its twelfth team and is looking forward to an interesting 2009. The challenge posed by the N-Prize is difficult
enough: to launch and track a nanosatellite (hence the ‘N’, though an alternative interpretation is ‘Negligible resources’) weighing between 9.99 and 19.99 grams through at least nine complete Earth orbits.

As if that weren’t tricky enough, there’s a catch. The whole thing has to be done on a budget of less than £999.99 – roughly the price of a modest second-hand car.

“Surely it’s impossible?” asks the N-Prize website (www.n-prize.com), and then goes on to provide its own answer: “Very nearly”. Nevertheless, at least 12 groups around the world are either smart or dumb enough to think it can be done. Two prizes are on offer, each of £9,999.99 – “a nano-Prize for a nano-challenge,” says Dear.

The first, jokingly called the ‘SSO’ or ‘Single-Spend to Orbit’ is for a non-reusable launch system built and operated entirely within the budget – everything that leaves the ground has to cost under a thousand pounds. The second, the ‘RV’ or ‘Reusable Vehicle’ prize, allows an unlimited budget, as long as enough of the launch hardware is recovered to keep the per launch cost below the thousand pound ceiling. Despite his light-hearted tone, Dear says that he is deadly serious about the N-Prize, and expects to lose one or both of the prize money pots by the close of the competition in September 2011.
“It’s such a crazy idea that it’s bound to work,” he says. “We’re talking about sending a matchbox the distance from London to Birmingham, then giving it a shove sideways. Yes, the distance is vertical, and the sideways shove has to be on the order of ten thousand miles per hour…”
His proposed budget at first seems hopelessly unrealistic but a little back-of-the- envelope calculation shows that it’s tantalisingly close to being feasible.

Read the entire article at: www.n-prize.com/assets/spaceflight_article.pdf

More informations at: www.n-prize.com

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