Ask Hackaday: Floating To Space

floating into space book cover

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?


large balloon craft


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?


several balloons lifting a large structure


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?


man standing inside large balloon


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]

51 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Floating To Space

  1. Why not use electric charge at that altitude to pump up the volume of the balloon, like a kind of reverse capacitor, using same charge repulsion on a central electrode and the outer balloon?

    In the end its volumes and densities that work out (it’s still buoyancy) But with a better vacuum in the inside of the “balloon”…

    1. Using electrostatic repulsion as an active compressive load element? At altitude you don’t need that unless you’re reducing the pressure inside the balloon. That having been said, if Jedi’s hydrogen-instead-of-helium idea was used then you could scavenge the gas for propulsive/power uses, and if you had electron leakage (or or intentionally charged the outside of the envelope), then you’d just be one component away from a truly massive ion lifter (or a few more away from an ion engine).

      I also think that it’s relevant to note that some vacuum tubes used some sort of electrical effect to increase their vacuum while active: you MIGHT be able to get an effective internal vacuum at altitude, which would (obviously) increase lift for a given volume, even if only a little.

      I’m actually a little dubious about using an ion engine to reach orbital velocity even in the upper bounds of the atmosphere, but if it works, then it works… just include a gas inlet if you want the setup to be reusable.

  2. Leaking charge from the balloon could make a “electric wind” on the backside of the balloon to push it away. Maybe use radiation and charge traps in the front to capture ions to balance the charge lost…

    1. Either way, the electrical energy consumed… just boggles the mind. To lift a car from say, 50KM to 500KM, would consume a noticeable amount of mass in a nuclear power plant. We’re talking 4GJ (~1100 KW/hrs). 200K feet is about 38 miles, which is around 61.5 KM. Yay for an American education where they forced me to learn a dozen different ways to measure distance. No, I’m not even going to calculate light-seconds or Planck instants. XP

      For fun:
      BTW, this formula works no matter the way the energy is consumed as it’s a lower bound assuming 100% efficiency. Yes, I had to say this even on a site like this. :(

      1. 4GJ is about 30 gallons of gas or 37 kgs of hydrogen, not taking into account efficiency, but this is not an unreasonable amount of energy imo. Interesting idea to reuse part of your float as fuel, just save enough so the remains can land :-)

  3. First of all, i would use Hydrogen instead of Helium. Although H is smaller than He, paired Hydrogen [H²] can’t leak through holes that Helium atoms can. Once you’re using Hydrogen as a lifting gas, why not throw in a Proton Exchange Membrane and get some use out of it. Plus it is way easier to manufacture and cheaper because it doesn’t require nuclear fusion or fission to create and Dubya didn’t auction off our national Hydrogen reserves to the lowest bidder..
    One relevant thing I have always wondered, but never googled is why couldn’t you fill an oversized vessel/balloon with your lifting gas, so that as atmospheric pressure drops with altitude rise, the original quantity of lifting gas remains in the container, the container just occupies more volume. no venting, conservation of lifting gas = more lift. It will vent plenty when you reach outer space and it expands to fill the vacuum and dies.

    1. the problem with Hydrogen is that it is flammable. Remember the Hindenburg? that was a hydrogen airship which in my inexpert opinion brought about the end of hydrogen as a lifting gas.

      1. The issue with the Hindenberg was ignition likely due to static discharge, and the fact they coated the entire thing in metallic paint to help prevent it heating up as much. Hydrogen doesn’t just spontaneously explode, and it doesn’t burnt the way the Hindenberg did, either.

      2. Also think about how the Hindenburg Disaster was a famous but compared to modern air crashes it had quite a low number of fatalities. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew, 13 passengers and 22 air crew died. Most the fatalities were because of poor escape routes.

        A “modern” airship using hydrogen, if constructed and planned like a airliner could be highly automated and have lots of safety designed in, like jet fuel hydrogen is flammable and potentially dangerous, but surely it can be managed?

        And the most fatalities of any airship the USS Akron (Helium filled)

        1. To this date, almost every single airship lighter then air has had at least one major accident, most were destroyed in accidents…those things are unsafe by their nature, being heavier then air has one key advantage – without power you will stay on the ground, airships just “go with the flow” :P

          1. Remember we are mostly talking about the 1930’s and 1940’s for rigid airships, and planes were pretty unreliable then too, dropping out of the sky at terminal velocity is also bad.

            Blimps have a pretty good recent safety history, in the last 20 years there have been fewer than 10 incidents and just one fatality. It’s difficult to compare that to helicopter or aeroplane incidents, because there are far, far, fewer blimps, but they also operate closer to the ground and often inside cities where there are more hazards.

          2. Safety and explosion risk is not a big deal for a platform located well away from lightning and highly-dense oxygen-containing air. Not to mention that they can be highly automated, so that few if any people would be there TO die. If it was such a huge risk to people on the ground, well they could be over a part of the ocean with little if any trade routes.

            Without oxygen and at well-beyond-freezing temperatures, they just plain couldn’t explode, anyways. Of course, if there’s people on board, those 2 conditions will automatically get negated just for practicality.

    1. I was thinking hydrogen fuel cell, but until I googled it, I was under the impression that the Proton exchange membrane stripped the hydrogen of spare electrons somehow, potentially making the waste product.. slightly less heavy hydrogen. but i see that oxygen is involved, and water is the ‘waste’ product, which should be dumped to lighten the load, and now the whole setup is going to need more lifting capacity to carry a hydrogen tank that can be used to supply a hydrogen fuel cell and modulate buoyancy. If i were making a lighter-than-air vehicle, ideally i would want to pump hydrogen from my blimp/pontoons/whatever into a fuel cell when i wanted to lower altitude, and collect the newly created water to use for the ballast (and for when i get thirsty)

    1. But infinitely more hazardous to passengers. A lungful of hydrogen will give you tunnel vision, fainting at worst. A lungful of ammonia will land you in the ER, possibly the morgue. Then there’s the cost effectiveness of high volumes of lifting gas needed for anything useful.
      About the only benefit to ammonia is it’s vastly tighter explosive limits.

  4. it’s INSERTION velocity, not ESCAPE velocity. sheesh. Escape Velocity is if you’re sending something interplanetary. Insertion vel. is for putting something into orbit. Earth low orbit is in the neighborhood of 9 km/s

  5. “NASA has developed what is known as a Super Pressure Balloon, which can stay put in the upper atmosphere for long periods of time. ”

    Superpressure balloons (for the ULDB project) are very, very new, and in fact they still have not surpassed zero-pressure balloons for flight length. The longest any heavy-lift scientific balloon has been at float is 55 days (SuperTIGER) which was a zero-pressure balloon. (Zero-pressure balloons are open to atmosphere, and lose lifting gas over time, so they can’t stay aloft indefinitely).

    That being said, the reason for that is that the important part of staying aloft – stationkeeping – hasn’t been developed for scientific balloons yet. They’re only intended to float (hence the reason they’re launched in the polar regions, where the polar vortices keep them in place).

    But a two-mile wide station at loft? Held up by balloons? Indefinitely? That’s a lot, lot more complicated than a superpressure balloon, which was already much harder than expected to develop.

    1. Boats float indefinitely…
      Airships are just boats for a gas…
      the problem is the lifting gas is much harder to contain, but if you use hydrogen instead of Helium, the problem is not a hard…
      And the interesting thing is, the bigger the lifting envelope, the better lift/weight ratio.

        1. Well then make sure to avoid those antisatellite missiles and ICMBs on their way to finish WWIII and start WWIV and World Civ 2.0. Seriously though, it would take 911 level of sabotage or a natural disaster to hit something that far up. Take precautions but don’t fail at living in order to avoid even a remote chance of failing to continue living!

  6. The main thing is that we are doing this step by step. When we first started the Airship to Orbit program there were dozens of impossible things to overcome. Every year we cross another one off. Now there’s just a few left.

    Tonight we’re testing upgrades to our home made hypersonic shock tube. We use it to test active drag reduction systems. We’re running it at mach 3 now. Tonight we expect to get to mach 3.5, we should have it just running just over mach 5 by winter.

    The book “Floating to Space” is about the whole project and is available at our website:

    John Powell
    JP Aerospace, America’s OTHER Space Program

    1. I had a very similar idea, but doing it as one go with a delta wing shaped balloon and ion drives for propulsion, about seven years ago. I sat down and did a few basic calculations on size, power needs, etc., and just couldn’t get the numbers to be anywhere near reasonable. Of course, I was thinking of it as something with a 50-100 meter wing and so on, and so I just parked the idea as a good plausible one, but one that would need a lot of engineering work and a more well thought out approach. I think with your staged approach is a very clever idea. I don’t think it will be easy, but I do think it’s possible, and I’m delighted that someone is putting some serious work into the idea. Good luck!

  7. We’re not actually using superpressure balloons. We use zero pressure balloons inside a just above ambient pressure ripstop poly shell. NASA has been trying to make a balloon material that lasts for long duration. We took a different approach. We are using existing materials balloons and swapping them out in flight to get the duration. This changes it from a materials problem to a maintenance problem. We have already accomplished a balloon swap out in flight at 50,000 feet. Our large station vehicle will not hold over a fix position. We are going to allow it to circle the globe at 140,000 feet.


    1. Do you really mean just free float, or just minimal steerability? Would free float be legal (as in, would countries actually *like* a 2 mile long object floating above them at 140K feet)? My only knowledge here is of the NASA variety, also known as “if it gets near people, cut it down.”

      1. That was an issue for ESA too. They had a rather toxic rocket deposit itself all over an area. Heck, while searching for a reference, I found out that even recently the Russians had another accident like that. And let’s not get started on the ‘totally not a spy satellite’ satellites that failed to reach even a minute into their launch. ;)

      2. That begs the question, though. What do you do when someone launches missiles at a suborbital-space platform and suddenly a bunch of SAM launchers get vaporized? And don’t even tell me that governments aren’t planning for that exact situation in the 21st or 22nd centuries!

  8. It just so happens that a relative of mine is the co-founder and CEO of a company that launches high altitude balloons carrying wireless repeaters for communication and data services. I should note that Google’s project Loon INTENTIONALLY copied them but they can’t afford to sue Google if Google goes anywhere with Loon. Anyway I know the basics of how they work so I figured I’d share.

    They do indeed use hydrogen instead of helium for a lifting gas, as it is 4 times less dense and, while flammable, the balloons are only equipped with low voltage electronics and only launched in good weather. Therefore there is little worry of fire or an explosion.

    The balloons themselves are only partially filled at launch (and only just enough for takeoff) because the difference in atmospheric pressure is enough for them to not only fully inflate at altitude, but they would burst if not vented. They vent using a solenoid valve, but I don’t know if they hold a patent on that or anything.

    I don’t think they’ve found an economical material light enough, strong enough and flexible enough at low temperatures to be filled enough for takeoff yet survive at altitude without having to vent.

      1. Note to self: Density at STP is NOT proportional to atomic mass for different gasses. Chem-101 teaches the density of an ideal gas at STP is proportional to its molecular mass. That would make hydrogen half as dense as helium.

        Further note to self: Buoyancy is NOT proportional to 1/density. Archimedes’ principal teaches that the force on a body in a fluid is equal to the difference in the weight of the body and the weight of the fluid it displaces.

        Incredibly enough, that wasn’t the only nor the most boneheaded post I made that day. Now that I feel like a POS I guess I must correct things without trying to screw anything else up!

  9. Always thought about using a weather balloon to lift a model rocket for the first 20 km through the atmosphere and starting it from there, though that would be highly dangerous, and I don’t know if there are any model rockets (for amateurs) which would be able to cover the last 80 km to space (propably not as the gravitation doesn’t get much weaker at that altitudes and 80 km are quite a distance).
    This project puts that up some notches. Awesome if it works.

    Also: 140 000 feet? Can’t we get that in kilometres or miles (if you have to be imperial)?

    1. Was working on that very idea but abandoned the pure rocket approach as I ( as has every one else thats thought of it I guess) could not figure out how to prevent a catastrophe if every component did not function perfectly, i.e. recovery chute deployment,etc. Have opted instead for a rocket propelled glider launched from a HAB. Have the lifting platform constructed, and most of the electronic components,balloons etc.and am currently looking for an electronics whiz to help me get this stuff wired up as it needs to be. No any one interested in collaborating on such a venture? This is just a small sale prototype to study the feasibility of this.

        1. Unfortunately, NO. Have only recently discovered Hackaday. While I have accumulated the bulk of the major components for this, I still am lacking a camera(s) both for documentation put this on Hackaday, and for the FPV set-up I intend to have on the rocket/glider. As the old saying goes though, stay tuned. I’m struggling to get my s%@t together here but will have it shortly.

  10. the novel I’m writing has tech like this, a aircraft carrier sized airship that never comes below 10,000 feet to pick up cargo and passengers, then goes back to 100,000 feet to launch larger versions of the Virgin Galactic Spaceship2.

    It makes a lot of sense when you think about it, we expend a lot of energy just to get out of the thicker bit of the atmosphere.

    I hope this goes well!

  11. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if this did work. All you need to do is keep the airship at altitude for enough time to reach orbital velocity, which doesn’t seem impossible with the flight times people have already achieved, ion propulsion can handle the rest. Which would make this a great way to launch small payloads into space, although i’m not entirely convinced on the manned part.

    Let’s hope it does work though, because I am currently working on an open source platform for people to test low cost space technologies like this one. It’s also my entry for the hackaday prize :p. Check it out:

    And if I win the prize then Hackaday will have it’s own backyard space program!

    1. Actually we used a chemical/electric hybrid engine. We take the plasma created in the thrust chamber of a chemical rocket engine (we have a long narrow combustion chamber) then tune it by pumping RF then magnetically accelerate it. The excess charge coming out the nozzle is then extracted with an magnetohydrodynamic generator and feed back into the system to make it more efficient. It’s sort of a dirty ion engine. We are up to test firing number 107.

      JP Aerospace

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