SAN FRANCISCO-The world’s largest chip maker and a relatively little-known data storage company are teaming up to provide a major portion of the IT system for a space travel project that might one day turn into a commercial venture.
Intel is providing its new “Tolapai” chip set, and Dot Hill Systems, a small, independent storage array company, is handling all the data storage requirements.
No, this isn’t the Spaceship Two project headed by designer Burt Rutan and backed by maverick entrepreneur Richard Branson, who also is developing a commercial space bus.
This is the Hermes Spacecraft, a space shuttle designed by another entrepreneur, Morris Jarvis of Mesa, Ariz. Hermes is being developed on the premise that anyone should be able to take a trip into space.
But such a flight will never be cheap; a project spokesperson said a seat for one person will be about “the cost of a new car.” However, anybody who’s been auto shopping lately knows that you can buy a new Kia for tens of thousands of dollars less than, say, a new Maserati, so there’s a lot of latitude in that statement.
Those tickets have to be expensive. Jarvis has said it will cost about $1.5 million to raise the craft skyward on a test flight with a helium balloon, and that launching it with a rocket engine would cost about $5.4 million. The ship will only carry a few people-most likely six to eight.
Specifically, Jarvis’ business plan provides for space travelers paying $25,000 for a trip powered by a helium balloon and $100,000 for a rocket-powered ride.
Hermes to Star at IDF
It’s still cheaper than Branson’s project, however. Branson’s Virgin Galactic already has collected some $25 million in deposits from would-be space travelers-including several Silicon Valley executives-for suborbital flights up to 75 miles high starting in 2009. Virgin Galactic is charging a cool $200,000 per flight.
The Hermes project-named after the Greek god of travel-will be featured Aug. 19 at the Intel Developer Forum here at the Moscone Center. A “virtual cockpit,” in which conference-goers can “fly” the Hermes yet never leave the ground, will be available at the event.
Hermes, styled similarly to the conventional NASA Space Shuttle, began as a garage project for Jarvis 15 years ago. He and his team recently completed a one-third-scale, prototype version of the ship and will launch it on an unmanned, tethered flight using the helium balloon to between 15,000 and 20,000 feet this fall over the Bonneville Salt Flats, west of Salt Lake City. Morris will control the spacecraft from a remote cockpit on the ground, like the one on display at IDF.
Numerous sensors on the ship will gather critical flight data, mostly heat and aerodynamic information, collect it in the Dot Hill arrays using the Tolapai chip sets, and provide real-time feedback to Morris and his flight crew.
“We actually got involved early on with the Tolapai [chip set] project, because we are using it in our next-generation RAID controllers,” Scott McClure, Dot Hill’s director of marketing, told me.
The Intel engineers were sufficiently impressed with the Dot Hill storage system that they invited the company to be a co-partner in the development project.
“We spent enough time with the Tolapai engineers that they came to us about a month and a half ago and asked us if we wanted to participate on something called the ‘Hermes Project,'” McClure said. “So here we are.”
Tolapai chip sets use Intel’s new SOC (system on a chip) microarchitecture. This combines IA (Intel architecture) x86 processor cores on the same piece of silicon as the I/O and memory control hub.
The Tolapai microprocessors include a new accelerator technology called QuickAssist. Much like a similar program from Advanced Micro Devices called Torrenza, QuickAssist allows third-party accelerators to work with IA microprocessors.
Dot Hill’s new RAID controller featuring the chip sets will be coming out sometime in 2009, McClure said.
Ceiling for First Trip: 113,000 Feet
Providing that all the test flights work out safely, the first commercial trip would have the craft towed by balloons tethered to safety parachutes to 113,000 feet-about 21 miles high. During an undoubtedly scary free-fall back to the ground, passengers would experience about 5 minutes of weightlessness.
The entire flight would last 6 or 7 hours, with most of that time spent going slowly up. (I believe I’ll pass, thanks.)
In his second round of flights, Jarvis claims, passengers would experience 10 minutes of zero gravity and fly to a suborbital altitude of 330,000 feet, or about 62 miles. The round-trip flight would take about 45 minutes.
A few months after as many tethered flights as are needed, Hermes will be equipped with an engine so it can be flown like a high-speed aircraft. These flights will be manned by experienced pilots, Morris said.
Thank God for that.
Morris and his colleagues will use data collected from the various test flights by the Tolapai controller and the Dot Hill arrays to build the production version of Hermes, which will then feature a special heat shield necessary for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.