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Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne is scheduled for launch today, in a bid to be the first privately-funded, manned craft to leave the Earth's atmosphere for a sub-orbital spaceflight.

Last month, a group of amateur space enthusiasts managed to send an unmanned rocket up to the magic 100km mark: the height where space officially begins. Allen's project, a joint venture with engineer extraordinaire Burt Rutan, has space for two passengers to travel with the pilot. The person in charge of the plane has not yet been named, but will become the first non-government sponsored astronaut if everything goes well.

At 6:30am, Pacific Time, a carrier aircraft, called the White Knight, will take off from the launch site in the Mojave desert, and lift the space plane to around 50,000ft before releasing it into a glide. The pilot then fires the rocket motor for 80 seconds and pulls into a vertical climb. He will reach speeds of Mach 3 in the climb, and will experience acceleration of up to 4G. This should give the ship sufficient momentum to coast up to the goal height of 100km, before it starts to fall back to Earth.

Once the fall begins, the pilot needs to get the plane into its high drag configuration to slow it on its descent. Once it is back inside the atmosphere, he will change the set up again, back to the glider form. Then, the plane will glide for about 20 minutes before landing on the same runway it took off from.

If the flight is successful, the ship will be one step closer to winning the AnsariX prize. This is a $10m purse offered to the first team that launches a ship, capable of carrying three people, to an altitude of 100km and returns safely to Earth. To win the prize, the trip must be repeated within two weeks. SpaceShipOne is one of several teams in the competition.

Over 500 members of the press have signed up to cover the event, and the organisers of the prize are expecting things to get a little busy in the area. A statement on the website reads: "Motels for miles around will be filled. Campers will line the roads in competition for the best viewing spot. Traffic will be a mess. It's not the old Cape Canaveral, but it will seem like it." ®

Related stories

SpaceShipOne readied for 21 June launch
Mach 0.3 milk float goes for land speed glory
US rocket pioneers hit 100km

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