Canada’s da Vinci Project prepares for takeoff

The would-be space travellers behind the da Vinci Project are trying to avoid the plight of Icarus, but they are flying close to the Sun.

The da Vinci Project is a

Canadian-operated, privately-funded mission designed to put a vehicle into space. The team involved in the project is in the running for the US$10-million Ansari X Prize Competition. The X Prize Foundation is a not-for-profit organization based in St. Louis, Mo., that will award the cash, a trophy and bragging rights to the first group that’s able to put a reusable craft safely into space twice within a two-week period. The craft must be able to carry a pilot and the weight-equivalent of two passengers 100 kilometers into sub-orbital space.

In order to complete much of the simulation work behind such a massive undertaking, the project coordinators are running software of their own design on workstations supplied by Sun Microsystems of Canada.

The da Vinci Project is the culmination of the work of more than 600 volunteers across the country, including university students at U of T and Queen’s, but the man behind the controls will ultimately be team leader Brian Feeney.

Feeney was on hand Thursday to talk about his planned flight and show off the space craft, Wild Fire Mk VI. “”We’re in the final systems integration phase for the actual rocket launch itself,”” he said. “”That will be completed over the next approximately five weeks. In parallel with that, we’ve got the whole balloon effort.””

In order to get Wild Fire into space, it will launched from the world’s largest reusable helium balloon at an altitude of 24,400 meters. The first manned Wild Fire flight is scheduled for Oct. 2 from an airport in Kindersley, Sask.

According to Feeney, more than 150,000 man hours have gone into the preparation for that moment, much of it in simulated environments. “”For a program like this, you can’t go off the shelf to buy flight guidance software, flight analysis software, flight simulation software. We developed everything in-house,”” he said.

In order to run software of that calibre, Feeney said that the da Vinci team had to built some its own hardware, but also used high-end Sun workstations to run applications like FEA (finite element analysis) and CFD (computational fluid dynamics). Much of that was supplied by Southpointe, Pa.-based Ansys Inc., a specialty provider of simulation software.

The team uses a handful of Blade 2000 multi-processor workstations “”RAM’d up with more Gigabytes than I’ve normally seen,”” said Feeney. “”We do 3D computational fluid dynamics on them. Lots of number crunching.””

The software was put to use to “”do all the computer stuff that you have to do in order to build a rocket ship,”” said Sun Canada business development manager Rob Adley. “”What Sun provided was the hardware and software infrastructure platforms in order to run those applications.

“”Sun is very active globally in the space agency programs . . . organizations like NASA. In Canada, you’re sort of limited to what’s going on at any given time. Certainly, this is the biggest aerospace event that we’ve been involved with in Canada,”” he said.

The X Prize Foundation was formed in 1996, but received attention earlier this year when an American team successfully tested its own space vehicle. There are 25 international groups in contention for the coveted X Prize, but American effort SpaceShipOne, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was the first to break the space barrier in June. The flight, however, didn’t qualify for the X Prize since it did not carry the required passenger weight.

SpaceShipOne is scheduled for another launch on Sept. 29, just a few days before the da Vinci Project’s first X Prize attempt.

Feeney isn’t bowed by the pressure and cautiously optimistic that the Canadian team can pull ahead. “”While we have a great deal of confidence in the execution of the mission, that doesn’t mean we may not have an abort of some kind and we want to be prepared to keep on competing,”” he said.

The craft will be piloted by Feeney himself. He said that his background isn’t in aviation, but that isn’t necessary for a craft like Wild Fire. “”It’s a ballistic rocket. It doesn’t fly like an aircraft. If you try to fly it like an airplane, you can’t. It’s simply too different.””

The da Vinci team opened up a Wild Fire flight simulator to the public recently and it was the non-pilots that were the most successful in handling the craft, said Feeney. The best was actually a Grade 7 boy.

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