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updated 8/31/2010 6:48:31 PM ET 2010-08-31T22:48:31

Two commercial space companies are set to launch experimental rockets on a series of test flights close to the edge of space, supported by new NASA funding.

NASA announced Monday that it has awarded a total of $475,000 to Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall, Texas, and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., which are planning seven test flights this fall and winter.

"These two awards are just the beginning of an innovative teaming relationship with industry to provide affordable access to the edge of space while evaluating the microgravity environment for future science and technology experiments," NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun said in a statement.

Test flights coming soon

The grants were made through NASA's Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program, which supports private efforts to make affordable trips to what NASA calls "near space." The border of Earth and space is widely regarded in the space industry to be about 62 miles (100 km) up; NASA regards near space as between about 12 and 66 miles (19 and 106 km).

The goal is to help private firms develop craft that can launch small payloads to near space and return them safely.

Such development is vital to NASA's new space plan, which would give commercial spacecraft and services a much larger role than they have had. [ 10 Private Spaceships Becoming Reality ]

Armadillo said it will use the money to make three unmanned launches of its Super-Mod vehicle from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Two flights, both aiming for an altitude of about 9 miles (15 km), will take place this fall. The third will target a maximum altitude of 25 miles (40 km) or so and should occur this winter.

Masten Space Systems' Xaero vehicle is expected to make four unmanned flights this winter from the Mojave Spaceport in California. Two flights will reach an altitude of approximately 3 miles (5 km); the other two would reach about 18 miles (29 km), with an engine shutdown during flight.

Both the Super-Mod and the Xaero vehicles will be modified with special antennas, allowing them to determine their position using global navigation satellite systems. The vehicles will be able to broadcast position data and other relevant information to ground stations and similarly equipped aircraft.

Commercial spaceflight contenders

Both Armadillo and Masten build rockets that launch vertically and land vertically, and both companies are contenders in the field of commercial spaceflight.

Masten snagged $1 million in NASA prize money last year by winning a contest to build and fly mock lunar landers. Armadillo placed second in the event, winning $500,000. Armadillo also won the first level of the contest in 2008.

The two companies have also both teamed with other firms of late to advance their technology and business opportunities. Masten recently inked a deal with California company XCOR Aerospace to develop unmanned landers that could be used for missions to the moon, Mars and asteroids.

In April, Armadillo struck an exclusive deal with the Virginia-based company Space Adventures, which has booked multimillion-dollar space tourism flights to the International Space Station for several wealthy clients. Armadillo and Space Adventures plan to offer seats on suborbital rocket ships that Armadillo is developing.

Those suborbital trips would cost about $102,000 and give customers a trip to the edge of space to experience up to five minutes of weightlessness, Space Adventures officials have said.

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