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Weather hampers da Vinci Project

Published by Robin on Wed Sep 8, 2004 3:49 pm
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test team in U.S. for trial run of helium balloon
by Darren Bernhardt, The Saskatoon StarPhoenix, September 8, 2004

Adverse weather in the United States is hampering efforts of the da Vinci Project team to test a giant helium balloon that is crucial to the launch of a manned rocket from Kindersley next month.

But while the team has encountered problems with the test, it appears to have secured an insurance policy for the flight, which the Canadian government has been waiting for in order to sanction the launch.

Some critics have suggested unco-operative weather on the Canadian Prairies similar to what the team has found in its tests could play havoc with the launch attempt on Oct. 2.

“We’ve had a couple of delays and I’m not sure what happened today (Tuesday),” said Brian Feeney, da Vinci leader and the aspiring astronaut of the 4,000-kilogram rocket, called Wild Fire.

The test was initially scheduled to happen Saturday. Speaking from the team’s Toronto headquarters, Feeney didn’t disclose the location of the test or details about the weather conditions.

“They (team members doing the test) are out in the field in the middle of nowhere. Until they get back tonight (Tuesday) or tomorrow I won’t know. They’re incommunicado . . . and I’m not going to say anything until I know myself, obviously.”

Feeney is maintaining a furtive approach to the launch because of the highly competitive — and highly lucrative — nature of the Ansari X Prize contest. The da Vinci team is one of 26 vying for the $10-million US prize, which will go to the first team to send a privately funded craft capable of carrying three people to an altitude of 100 kilometres — the edge of space — twice in 14 days.

For the purpose of the contest, just one passenger needs to be inside the craft but the equivalent weight of two or more adults must be included.

A date for Feeney’s second launch has not been set but it is expected within days of Oct. 2. His biggest competitor is American aerospace developer Burt Rutan, who is aiming for a first launch on Sept. 29 in Mojave, Calif., and a second by Oct. 4. His rocket, SpaceShipOne, will launch from the back of a supersonic jet.

Feeney’s approach is to use the helium balloon to lift the rocket, which will be tethered 250 metres below, to an altitude of 24 kilometres. The tether will be cut and the rocket will blast off at that point.

The test of the balloon will be a weighted lift “to verify our loads,” said Feeney. The rocket itself won’t be lifted. Only a fraction of the 4,000 kilograms will be attached as a weight, but the time it takes the balloon to inflate and lift is being studied.

Feeney’s plan has been criticized by Ted Llewellyn, a physics professor with the University of Saskatchewan’s Institute of Space and Atmospheric Studies, and Dale Sommerfeldt, vice-president of a Saskatoon company specializing in balloons launches for Environment Canada and the Canadian Space Agency.

Both questioned the feasibility of lifting such a load and doubted the strong, unpredictable Prairie winds would co-operate.

Meanwhile, Feeney says the project has secured an insurance policy.

“We have a firm quotation and we’re putting it to bed,” said Feeney, who couldn’t say whether the papers would be filed this week. “I’m waiting for the documents to arrive and then we’ll write cheques and put it in the hands of the government.”

The policy will cover potential injuries and property damage. Feeney is also filing an indemnity clearing the Canadian government against launch damages.

He’d been hunting for several weeks for the best price from insurance companies. Although he won’t say what rate he secured, “it’s a lower number than any number that’s been published, speculatively or otherwise.”

According to the website Wired News, the leader of another X Prize team, Geoff Sheerin of Canadian Arrow, had received quotes from $250,000 to $1.5 million for $5 million in liability coverage.

Transport Canada would not guarantee the approval process would be completed in time for Feeney’s launch date.

But Feeney believes the government will expedite the process.

“They know the time pressures. They’ve been working with us,” he said. “We’ll get ‘er done as fast as possible.”

© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2004

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