I am going to go to space

N-Prize Snakes Away!

Go little snake! Go!

But probably not in person, if I am perfectly honest. However, starting my own space program and launching the odd satellite or two, well, that is a different matter. A while back, I learnt about the N-Prize. This is a rather cool version of the X-Prize. Launch a satellite into orbit that with a mass between 9 and 19 grams, complete at least 9 orbits and perform the entire launch for £999.99. If I do it, I could win £9999.99. In fact, if I do it again re-using parts, I could win another £9999.99! It is pretty obvious that the prize won’t cover the development costs: I reckon it would cost me a good 75 grand1 to get to launch status, after which, I reckon my fiendishly clever scheme could launch satellites for less than a grand a pop. Nice! So I had a rummage around in my wallet to see if I could stretch to that: I found 20 euros, 8 yuan, a fiver, two Paris metro tickets, several receipts for shopping trips, some post it notes, a USB key, a sweet wrapper and a cheque for 20 pounds that I failed to bank from 2009 or so. Let’s just add that up… tappity tappity tappity on the old calculator, carry the one, divide by π, ah, yes, ok, so I am about 75 grand under.

But still, when it comes to launching something into orbit, I reckon 75 smackers represents good value for money. Granted, success would result in launching things that weighed 20 grams or so (although my calculations show I could launch up to 200 grams, so that’s a medium size glass of wine without the glass, or, better still, I’ll drink the wine and send the glass). I won’t be setting up a GPS system or building a space station that way, but one can do an amazing amount with 200 grams. An HD camera, for example, mini gyroscope stabilisation, small solar panel, mini battery and transmitter. Now, anyone, anywhere can access a web site and see the earth live. Watch moon rises. See the stars like never before.

Extend the launch system a small amount and that payload goes up to a kilogram. Once you can launch a kilogram for a grand or two, you can go to the moon. You can go to Venus. You can go to Mars (although to be fair, that’ll be a long, long haul as you won’t be able to go direct). You can fly into the sun. Hundreds of millions of kilometres of space – yours for the viewing, exploration and touching. It is just possible that you could actually land on the moon, but ironically, despite being further way, Venus’s atmosphere makes a death plunge far more attractive and there might be some substantial science to be gained from the exercise as a bonus.

Do it small, do it compact, do it cheap and do it in quantity. If I were landing on Mars, I would drop a metric stack-load of low-cost mini-landers. The very thought of spending enough money to eat diamonds for the rest of my life and GET ONE SHOT at it is alien to me. I would figure out a small wheeled vehicle, mass produce the buggers and get a swarm of them onto the surface doing their thing. We know enough about Mars now to know that little things with nice comforting airbags are highly likely to make it in one piece. Add rockets, wires to lower things, floating platforms, landing pads and a heap more complex stuff and you create a whole host of things that can go wrong and raise the risk substantially. Given that so much of the cost is in the launch, why send just one?

I am sure there is a good reason for all the decisions that are made, and making space about as interesting as watching grass grow probably doesn’t help. I wrote an article on European Space Agency’s recent PR successes that would have fitted three times in one tweet. Still, none of that takes away anything from my awesome N-Prize plan. Space Snakes in Space! Rattle-rattle-rattle!

I’ll just leave the donation tin right here.

1Caution: estimate may go up as well as up a lot. This estimate provided by “wild stabs in the dark” estimation services.

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