Sun sets sights on final frontier

Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. says it’s helping the da Vinci Project in an effort to send a manned, reusable spacecraft into sub-orbit and win a US$10-million prize.

The Markham, Ont.-based arm of computer maker Sun Microsystems Inc. earlier this month said it’s providing hardware and network clustering tools to the da Vinci Project, a team of volunteers bent on sending a spacecraft some 100 kilometres up and out of the atmosphere.

The da Vinci project is one of more than 20 teams vying for the X Prize, a US$10 million reward for the first crew to send a three-person capacity ship into space, and repeat the process within a two-week period. It’s designed to kick-start the commercial space industry.

According to Brian Feeney, the da Vinci Project’s Toronto-based team leader, Sun’s equipment is kick starting computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA) for his team. CFD and FEA are tools to make sure the crew’s ship, Wild Fire, can withstand the force of hitting the atmosphere upon re-entry, among other things.

“Even if you get a state-of-the-art PC, you can do a certain level of computation,” Feeney said. “We did ones that took half a day on (a) PC, that we’re doing in 30 minutes on the new Sun systems.”

In a press release, Sun said the da Vinci Project uses Sun Blade 2000 workstations to run stress tests on Wild Fire, and to improve the graphics that the team employs to visualize how specification changes affect the spacecraft’s design.

The da Vinci Pro-ject probably could use all of the help it can get. It faces stiff competition from 24 other teams in the race, including another homegrown endeavour called Canadian Arrow, to capture a sub-orbit apogee.

Wild Fire’s launch sequence has the ship starting suspended from a helium balloon 24,400 metres up. From there the five-metre-long craft will fire its rockets to attain a 120,000-kilometre distance from the ground, and a top speed of 4,300 km/h.

Wild Fire will re-enter the atmosphere with the help of a ballute (a combination balloon-parachute.) Closer to earth, a GPS-guided parafoil brings the ship in.

Feeney said the da Vinci Project plans a test flight in 2004, but he wouldn’t offer specific timing. As for the launch spot, Kindersley, Sask., is the site of choice.

“Because we’re launching from a balloon, we wanted an area where historically the winds were predictable, relatively light,” he said.

“It’s also wide open spaces. It’s an easterly drift over pretty sparse areas of Saskatchewan, so it made all the sense in the world. And the municipal airport, along with other logistical support, became available from the town of Kindersley.”

Feeney said the team still has some safety hoops to jump through.

“You have to apply to the CLSO – the Canadian Launch Safety Office, a department of Transport Canada. There’s a whole application process you go through. Depending on the magnitude of what you’re doing, you submit several hundred pages of information, anything from rain safety to all kinds of ballistic analysis, your mission plan, how you’re managing the whole process.”

Asked what the da Vinci Project would do with the prize should it win, Feeney said the money would be divided among the many volunteers.

He said the crew has invested 100,000 man-hours to date, making it the largest volunteer technology project in Canadian history.