L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

18 September 2006 Blog Home : September 2006 : Permalink

Backyard Space Explorastion

The big space news today was of course that Anousheh Ansari made her way into space as the first female space tourist, the first Iranain born person in space etc. etc. after paying $20M or so for the privilege.

The littler space news comes from Cambridge were some students tied some instruments to a weather balloon a week ago and tracked its progress up to 32.2km altitude and then back down to earth again. The combination of digital photography, portable GPS, cellular telephony and google earth allowed the students track the path of their instrument package and take some spectacular photos during flight such as the one to the left.

The GPS was able to track the balloon's position and the resulting report has been fitted into google earth as shown on the left.

None of this is, per se, extraordinary. This is merely the first test flight and it only got to the a third of the height that is generally considered to be space (100 km) however the key is that this was cheap. Practically any school, can afford to do this experiment: I don't know how much the helium balloon costs - I'm guessing US$1000 - but the rest of the payload could cost under US$1000. So for somewhere between US$1000 and US$2000 in hardware (much of which would be reusable) anyone can send a balloon up to 30km (100,000 feet) and do things - such as take photos or atmospheric measurements. The project's home page has a lot more information on what it can takem but the options are huge.

For example, combined with the second project, this would be a very cheap tactical / battlefield spy package if you could keep the balloon from popping and control the ascent altitude and direction a bit. If you could sort out the telemetry, provide some sort of high end telephoto capability and a way to contol where the lens was pointed you would have a spy package that would be very difficult to shoot down (and one which would be impossibly expensive to shoot down if launched in flocks).

However the most interesting thing that can be done at 30km is launch a rocket. The planned rocket will be able to take a 0.5kg payload up to 100km or so at a cost of £1000 (under US$2000) per launch. Some clever sums would need to be done but it would not surprise me if a slightly bigger version could not put something in permenant (very) low earth orbit. A bit of handwaving suggests to me that £5,000 ought to be enough to launch about 1kg of stuff into LEO (say over 150km up at ~25,000 km/h). This is probably more expensive per kg than other launch methods (big honking Delta or Soyuz rockets for example) but on the other hand unlike other launch methods it scales down to the 1kg package size and, as this paper explains, the techniques required for having something remain working at LEO are well understood these days. Hence, once they get the basic 2 stage balloon + rocket launch details sorted out, any university engineering department should be able to launch a small 1-2kg satellite for under $10,000. What can you stuff into a 1kg package? I don't know but I bet a camera, a radio and some solar cells would fit...

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin