Sun setting its 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 vying for the X Prize, a US$10 million reward for the first crew to send a three-person ship into space, land it back on Earth, 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 calculates computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA). CFD and FEA make sure the ship Wild Fire can withstand the force of re-entering the atmosphere, among other things.

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 Project faces competition from 24 teams, including another homegrown endeavour called Canadian Arrow.

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-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. The balloon tracks the craft and follows.

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.

Feeney said Wild Fire’s helium companion would be visible from the ground on launch day, although the ship itself would register as a mere speck.

Asked what the da Vinci Project would do with the prize, Feeney said it 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 Canada.

“It’s not about the money….The X Prize and the da Vinci Project are all about overcoming a barrier. We’re not trying to compete in terms of technology with NASA, the U.S. Air Force and other governments. It’s about bringing manned space flight into the private sector and demonstrating that it can be done.”

The da Vinci Project is at; and the X Prize Web site is