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Earth orbit for £1,000? You must be joking

Amateur boffins vie for 'very nearly' impossible N-Prize

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We're obliged to all those readers who sent in suggestions as to just what El Reg's new Special Projects Bureau should be doing with its multi-billion pound budget and mountain fab bunker complex, and the first thing that caught our eye was the N-Prize – "a challenge to launch an impossibly small satellite into orbit on a ludicrously small budget, for a pitifully small cash prize".

The N-Prize was launched by Cambridge biologist Paul Dear in 2008. It's aimed at "amateurs, enthusiasts, would-be boffins and foolhardy optimists" who can demonstrate "creativity, originality and inventiveness in the face of severe odds and impossible financial restrictions".

Here's the explanatory blurb:

The N-Prize offers two cash prizes, each of £9,999.99.

The prizes will be awarded to the first persons or groups to put into orbit around the Earth a satellite with a mass of between 9.99 and 19.99 grams, and to prove that it has completed at least nine orbits.

One prize (the "single-spend-to-orbit", or "SSO" Prize) will be awarded to the first entrant to complete the challenge using a non-reusable launch system. The other prize (the "reusable vehicle" or "RV" Prize) will be awarded to the first entrant to complete the challenge using a partially or wholly reusable launch system. Both prizes carry equal status.

The cost of the launch, but not ground facilities, must fall within a budget of £999.99. Entrants for the RV Prize may exceed this budget, but must demonstrate recovery of hardware such that the per-launch cost remains within £999.99.

Imaginative use of string and chewing gum is encouraged. Entrants are responsible for everything, organisers are responsible for nothing.

The N-Prize website describes the challenge as "very nearly" impossible, and we're inclined to agree.

Nonetheless, several teams have taken up the gauntlet. A quick shufti at the competitors' projects shows a predictable penchant for purely rocket-based systems, although this band of Discworld fans provocatively mention a rockoon concept, while NZ's Team Anahera Tere delightfully suggests a "very large cannon" might be a viable first-stage launch system.

Co-incidentally, our own Paper Aircraft Released Into Space (PARIS) project got us thinking about rockoons (rockets launched from high-altitude balloons), although a quick calculation on the back of a beer mat shows that the cost of a balloon, and the helium needed to lift a rocket would eat up a good percentage of the N-Prize maximum budget.

So, it remains to be seen if anyone succeeds in claiming the N-Prize before the deadline of 19:19:09 GMT on 19 September 2012. We're sure some of you garden-shed boffins have a few ideas as to how the impossible can be achieved. ®

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