Science & Technology

My own private space program—challenging SpaceX for fun and also fun

The obvious way to go to space on that kind of budget is to follow the path that’s been forged by many, many others over the last decade: filling weather balloons with helium or hydrogen and letting them fly. You can see several examples of such flights from Overlook Horizon, Brown University, and any number of individuals. In short, lofting some homegrown avionics to six-digit altitudes is something that’s been done by hundreds, if not thousands. So SpacePiper isn’t exactly at the leading edge by dragging out a tank rented from the nearest Party City and letting fly.

However, the plan here is a bit more ambitious than just sending a camera and altimeter up until the balloon pops. The target for SpacePiper’s initial series of flights will be to eventually launch a “Rockoon”—a balloon-lofted rocket. Ultimately, if all goes well, a small rocket will race away from a platform suspended above 100,000 feet and fly to 120,000 feet or higher. Which … still isn’t really space. In fact, with the Kármán line pegged at 100 kilometers, it’s not even halfway to really going into space. But it’s a start. Plus, that effort should generate lots of pictures of the curving Earth under a coal-black sky, plenty of hilarious technical failures, and lots of deep, deep concern on the part of the FAA. So it will look very like space. Let’s say … space-ish. 

On the way to space-ish, there will be a lot of pit-stops. Ground tests. Electronics builds. Tethered balloon tests. All of it done with the lavishness provided by the cold confines of my barn and the sort of budget many families devote to buying costumes for their dog. But however ridiculous it all seems, and however ugly the failures get, I’m promising to put them all here, to invite feedback and suggestions, and to dragoon people into helping when the project gets to the point of tracking-instrument packages that could land seventy or more miles from the launch site.

Drop in below the line for a peek at the initial plan.

Rockoons are not a new idea. Test models have been tried since the 1950s. When the biggest stage of any rocket is the one devoted to carrying it the first few miles into the sky, hoisting a smaller rocket by balloon seems almost like getting the first stage for free. Except that free ride is deceptive, because the most difficult thing about getting to orbit isn’t going up, it’s going fast. There are some companies that are looking at Rockoons for small launch vehicles, but seeing how that pans out is going to be interesting. 

Besides, getting something up there and making it simply work turns out to be surprisingly hard, even on a small scale. Yes, rockoons can dispose of most of that ground-based infrastructure, giving them more theoretical freedom in terms of launch sites. But some of that infrastructure needs to be reproduced. In midair. It’s difficult. Difficult enough that even some prestigious universities have butted their heads against the idea for years.

Plus, launching a rocket above 50,000 feet, even a small rocket that would count as a model on the ground, requires going to the FAA to beg, cajole, and convince them that what you’re putting in the sky is ultimately safe for both the airliners it may encounter and the people whose homes will be underneath its path. That effort alone has buffaloed many attempts.

But that part is some distance down the pike. First come the balloons. And there are electronics to do—tracking systems to build, instrumentation to test. Oh, many miles, and many tanks of helium, to go.

Right now, SpacePiper’s lavish budget has translated into:

    Five balloons ranging from small 350g versions that can take about a kilogram to 80,000 feet before bursting. to larger versions that can potentially take a payload about twice that size to 120,000 feet before bursting.  A dozen Arduino nano micro controllers, some breadboards, and assorted sensor chips, including altimeters and accelerators. Some rocket bits, most of which were actually already in the barn from my past hobby of launching high-power rockets.

My first efforts will actually be devoted to getting the lowest level of amateur radio license so I can run a tracking beacon on the balloons. Because the only thing “better” than having the FAA on my case would be to add the FCC. Then will come building the tracker from an Arduino nano and various bits. That alone should be hilarious, because the last time I did anything with a soldering iron, transistors were about the size of my thumb. 

By the end of January, I hope to conduct test flight #1, a tethered flight of a small balloon with tracker and instrumentation attached. The apparatus will be flown to about 400 feet, at which point the balloon will be deliberately popped to test parachute deployment and recovery.

Only when that milestone is past will parts and plans be put in place for flight #2: a free flight of the balloon, likely launched from a farm in southern Missouri.

After that … there are rockets to be built and flown, launching mechanisms to be designed and tested, and oh so many ways for this thing to fail. Stay tuned for the next update.

Fun video #1

Fun Video #2

The guys making a more serious run at this rockoon business.

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