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Rocket racer revealed

Ferris Valyn
A video displayed on a giant screen at the X Prize Cup shows the Rocket Racing

League's X-Racer taking off for a test flight from California's Mojave Airport, with

a bright flame shooting out from the rocket engine at the back.

If the Rocket Racing League followed the time line it announced when it was created two years ago, we'd be seeing 10 fire-breathing rocket planes competing for prizes like a "NASCAR in the sky." Instead, the league's first X-Racer plane is just now making its first honest-to-goodness test flights, under a veil of secrecy.

Eleven days ago, the Rocket Racing League let that veil slip just a little bit, and since then bloggers and photographers have been tearing away at it right and left. In the months and years to come, we could be hearing about the X-Racer - and about the Xerus, a suborbital spaceship that's likely to take advantage of X-Racer technology as well.

Both the X-Racer and the Xerus are being developed by XCOR Aerospace, a rocket company just down the street from SpaceShipOne's birthplace in Mojave, Calif. While other rocketpreneurs make a big splash with artist's conceptions and computer-generated animations, XCOR tends to keep a lower profile, chipping away at the technical challenges by taking on smaller contracts that are consistent with its big rocket vision (like the methane-fueled engine it's making for NASA).

The X-Racer builds on the work that XCOR did several years ago with its EZ-Rocket: The company is developing a new rocket engine called the XR-4K14, and fitting it into a frame based on the Velocity airplane kit. The project finally got off the ground, literally, on Oct. 25 for three rocket-powered hops.

Video from those test flights was shown on the Jumbotron screen during the X Prize Cup that weekend, but the Rocket Racing League hasn't yet made that video available. Daily Kos blogger Ferris Valyn snapped a screen grab of the video, however, showing bright kerosene-fed flames shooting out of the back of the plane. Another rocket-watcher, Ben Brockert, posted his own long-range video of the Oct. 25 tests.

The tests didn't stop there: Michael D'Angelo, the Rocket Racing League's vice president of technology, said more test flights have been conducted, pointing up the kind of "squawks" that are typically found during any aircraft development effort. Last week, Mojave photographer Alan Radecki took some choice snapshots of the plane on the ground and in the air, which are now posted freely on Wikipedia.

The league itself, however, isn't saying much about the test flights or releasing any imagery. Why is that? The league's executives are trying to follow a carefully laid-out schedule for the media rollout, including demonstration flights - first for journalists, then for the public. That means the pictures are being held back for what the league feels will be maximum impact.

Granger Whitelaw, the league's co-founder, president and chief executive officer, said the timing depended in part on the negotiations for broadcasting the races on television. "I won't launch the league until I have my TV deal," he told journalists.

The current timetable calls for starting exhibition races next year, then moving to a full racing schedule with a point system for prizes, Whitelaw said. "We will have one, two, three, four vehicles racing each other in the air during the spring, at air shows and other places ... but the points series won't start until '08, '09," he said.

Toward that end, Whitelaw announced that three more racing teams were being added to the mix: Rocket Star Racing, led by former Navy test pilot Todd White; Team Extreme Rocket Racing, headed by Navy aviator Bryan Schwartz; and Beyond Gravity Rocket Racing, led by Canadian X Prize competitor Brian Feeney. The new teams join Bridenstine Rocket Racing, Santa Fe Racing and Thunderhawk Rocket Racing.

Whitelaw admitted that he was "a little bit behind where I thought I'd be" on getting the league going, in part because he dwelled too much on the sponsorship end of things and not enough on the rocket end during the early going. But he said XCOR was making good progress on the X-Racer and its other projects, such as the Xerus suborbital spaceship.

Although XCOR hasn't said much about the Xerus lately, there have been hints that the X-Racer would move the company well more than one small step closer to space. The Xerus design might well take a page from the X-Racer effort, and some observers have noted that a cluster of four X-Racer engines could work quite well as Xerus' propulsion system. 

"My guess is, they're the first guys to go suborbital," Whitelaw said.

Update for 1:20 p.m. Nov. 8: Space consultant Charles Lurio points out this inside-scoop reference to the Xerus in his e-mail newsletter about private-sector spaceflight, The Lurio Report:

"I’m told that the engine for the XCOR 'Xerus' suborbital vehicle will be a derivative of the engine for the Rocket Racer.  I suspect strongly that such a derivative engine may have already been tested - or at least is well along toward that milestone.

"I know a few technical data points about the projected Xerus engine but can’t be specific about them publicly.  What I can mention is that in addition to an increase in thrust over the Racer’s engine, four or five of the derived rockets will be used in the Xerus. The number of engines is still an open question at this point for reasons of both operational safety and (presumably) engineering uncertainties.

"The Racer engine has undergone extensive duration and Racer flight profile testing on the ground.  What I hear about the durability results of these tests could hardly be better, but again I can’t mention any specifics."