On a cool September morning just west of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, a group of MIT students launched a low-budget high altitude project that would go on to gain global attention. They revealed to the world that with a small weather balloon, a hacked camera, cheap GPS phone and a little luck, you could get pictures that rival those from the Space Shuttle. Their project set forth a torrent of hackers, students, kids and parents the world over trying to copy their success. Many succeeded. Others did not.
At 100,000 feet or about 20 miles up, it’s a brisk 60 degrees below zero. The atmosphere at this height is but a fraction of its density at sea level. Solar radiation rains down like a summer squall, and the view is just short of breathtaking. It seems so agonizingly close to space that you could just reach out and touch it. That one could almost float right on up into orbit.
Sound impossible? Think again. A little known volunteer based company operating out of California is trying to do just this.
[JP’s] Big Idea
Meet JP Aerospace, America’s other space program, as [John Powell] likes to say. They’ve been doing professional high altitude balloon experiments for years. Their wildly successful “Pong Sat” program has allowed students all over the country to hitch a ride on one of their balloons, which carries their ping pong ball sized experiment to near space.
But we’re not here to talk about near space. We’re going to talk about their ambitious Airship to Orbit program, which uses balloons to reach orbit. That’s right, balloons. It works something like this:
Stage 1 – An atmospheric airship flies from the surface to 140,000 feet. It uses buoyancy and aerodynamic lift to get there.
Stage 2 – There is a two mile wide permanent floating space station at that altitude called The Dark Sky Station, or DSS.
Stage 3 – Docked with the DSS is a spaceship called The Ascender. It’s a mile long and constructed at the DSS. It uses buoyancy to get to 200,000 feet. Then it fires its electric engines to slowly reach orbital velocity. Slowly, as in about 9 days slowly.
Now, before you think we’ve lost our transistors, know that this is real (pdf warning). They even made a video of the concept! They’ve been researching this idea for decades, and have hundreds of high altitude experiments under their belt. Our job is to discuss two things:
A) Practicality. What’s possible and what is not.
B) Scalability. Would the idea work for smaller craft that a couple of hackers can make?
Stage 1 – The Airship
A) Practicality –
The real idea here is changing the shape and material of a basic high altitude balloon to give it some lift and make it steerable. A test vehicle called The Tandem tested some basic propellers at high altitude, which worked. But 140,000 feet? Can you get a high altitude airship that high?
B) Scalability –
Consider a typical 1000 gram high altitude balloon project. Is it possible to take that helium and instead of putting it in a latex balloon, put it into a fixed shape object, such as a Mylar constructed “mini airship” , leaving room for the helium to expand without changing the shape of the craft? Could such an object obtain high altitude? How high? What shape would you use to take advantage of lift? What kind of propulsion would you use, if any?
Stage 2 – The Dark Sky Station
A) Practicality –
Keeping a high altitude balloon at a specific altitude has been done before. NASA has developed what is known as a Super Pressure Balloon, which can stay put in the upper atmosphere for long periods of time. Is there any reason why this could not be done on such a large scale?
B) Scalability –
It would seem feasible to take a typical 1000 gram balloon and equip it with a venting system to keep it at altitude. Google has even toyed with the idea to get internet access to remote locations, and has seen some amazing results. The problem is, the latex and mylar will slowly lose helium, and you will get large swings in altitude between night and day. How would you keep a small high altitude balloon at a fixed altitude for an extended period of time?
Stage 3 – The Ascender
A) Practicality -
It’s a mile long. How do you keep a mile long balloon craft rigid without it weighing too much? They’ve made headway with generators using model rocket engines. But the thing’s a mile long!
B) Scalability -
Going back to our Stage 1 mini airship, consider installing a small ion engine on it. Use solar power and a small Van De Graaff generator for power and… could this really be possible? You would need to supply your own inert gas for the engine and some sort of heat shielding would be necessary. The big questions is – could you propel a small, buoyant craft resting at 100,000 feet to orbital velocity over a long period of time using an ion engine?
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
- [Robert Browning]