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Citizens in Space Competition Seeks Entries

Citizens in Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, is asking the public to dream up and build space hardware in exchange for a shot at cash prizes up to $10,000.

The winning project of the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge will be onboard 10 suborbital flights along with additional projects submitted as part of the challenge.

"A NASA astrobiologist approached us with this idea," said Edward Wright, Citizens in Space project manager. "Researchers have learned that the Earth's biosphere extends to much higher altitudes than previously suspected, up to 100,000 feet or more. The upper atmosphere could serve as a global transport system for disease organisms. It could also be a breeding ground for new diseases due to increased mutation rates from high levels of background radiation.

"In the past, these organisms could only be collected by high-altitude balloons, with poor reliability. Low-cost suborbital spacecraft, such as the XCOR Lynx, will be able to sample these organisms repeatedly with high reliability."

Citizens in Space has received an initial contract for a total of 10 of these spaceflights through Mojave, CA-based XCOR Aerospace, the company developing the Lynx spacecraft.

Challenge hardware entries, which will deal with the detection and study of high altitude organisms, are expected to be on suborbital flights beginning in late 2013 or early 2014, according to Citizens in Space.

"We have space for about 100 small experiments, and we're making all of it available to citizen scientists," Wright said. "Thanks to rapid advances in technology, it's now possible to build high-quality space-science hardware with off-the-shelf parts--stuff you might pick up at Radio Shack or Home Depot. We want to see what citizen scientists can do with those parts."

All persons in the United States are eligible to take part, from students and teachers to professional researchers.

A timeline is being finalized for the challenge. Currently, hardware entries are planned to be delivered by Feb. 12, 2013 with judging to follow, according to the challenge Web site. Judging will be conducted by a team of scientists and engineers.

In addition to the prize money and publicity, entrants also have another incentive in the form of a chance to take part in an actual suborbital flight.

"We plan to select another seven astronaut candidates over the next 12-24 months," said Lt. Col. Steve Heck (USAF-ret.), a science teacher from Milford, OH, who is one of three citizen astronaut candidates to be selected as a payload operator. "When we do, citizen scientists who have submitted hardware for our flights will be among the first in line."

Additional information on the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge, such as technical specifications for all projects, can be found at citizensinspace.org/astrobiology-challenge.

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