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The SpaceX rocket company announced something completely different on Monday: a Hyperloop pod competition that would follow up on a high-speed transit concept laid out by the company's billionaire founder, Elon Musk.
The contest would reach its climax next June with pod races at a roughly mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) Hyperloop test track that will be built next to SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, according to documents obtained by NBC News.
Musk conceived of the Hyperloop in 2013 as a network of pneumatic tubes through which aerodynamically designed passenger pods could travel at speeds of up to 760 mph (1,220 kilometers per hour). He suggested that a trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles could take a mere 35 minutes, for a price of $20 one-way.
The contest announced Monday marks the most concrete step Musk has taken to turn the multibillion-dollar Hyperloop into a reality.
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Two years ago, Musk said he couldn't get involved in building the Hyperloop, due to the crush of his duties as CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Since then, several other groups have tried to push the concept forward. One venture, called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is working on a deal to build its own 5-mile test track in central California. Another startup, Hyperloop Technologies, is building hardware.
"We are excited that a handful of private companies have chosen to pursue this effort," SpaceX said in a statement. "Neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk is affiliated with any Hyperloop companies. While we are not developing a commercial Hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype."
Hence the fast-track pod competition.
The open-source competition is open to anyone, including the commercial ventures, but SpaceX said it would focus on university students and independent engineering teams. Their task would be to design and build half-scale passenger pods, in accordance with design specifications that are to be released in August.
Teams have to signal their formal intent to compete by Sept. 15. A "design weekend" would be held at Texas A&M University on Jan. 9, 2016. During that event, the teams' proposed designs would be vetted by a panel of experts from SpaceX, Tesla and universities.
The finished pods would be pitted against each other on the test track in June 2016. The track would be less than full scale, with an inner diameter of 4 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters). No humans would be allowed on the pods during the competition, SpaceX said.
"The knowledge gained here will continue to be open-sourced," SpaceX said. "Break a pod!"
Word of the contest follows through on Musk's musings about the Hyperloop in January, when he told attendees at the Texas Transportation Forum that he was thinking about building a test track. (At that event, however, Musk said the track would "most likely" be built in Texas.) He said a Hyperloop test program could be modeled after the Formula SAE student competition for automobile design.
"People could compete, say, who could make the pod go the fastest, and maybe compete on other dimensions," Musk said in January. "I think that could be pretty fun."