Romanian Group Attempts Moon Mission With Giant Balloon

by Nancy Atkinson on November 17, 2009

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ARCA balloon attempt.  Credit: ARCA
The first attempt to send a rocket to the Moon via balloon hit a snag on Monday. The first test of the Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association’s (ARCA) balloon-launched rocket (or “rockoon”) ended in failure when the “inflation arms” used to fill the balloon became entangled in the balloon itself. The arms had to be cut, and the operation – which required the use of a large naval frigate — was curtailed. ARCA hopes to compete in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, and intends on using their unusual rocket system to send an equally unique spherical lunar lander to win a $30 million prize.

Rockoons were tried and then abandoned by the US in the 1950s because they blew off course in windy conditions.

ARCA’s European Lunar Explorer (ELE) is a simple design. The super-huge balloon carrying a system of three rockets will soar to about 11 miles (18 km) up. Then the first two rocket stages will fire and boost the system into low Earth orbit, and use the final stage to boost it to the Moon. The ELE will then travel to the moon and deploy its Lunar Lander, which resembles a knobby rubber ball that uses its own rocket engine to ensure a soft landing. Watch their video of how it all will work below: (If nothing else, watch it for the great music!)

On Monday, the Romanians loaded their prototype moon-balloon rocket onto the a large Romanian naval frigate, the Constanta, which took the entire crew out to the launch site in the Black Sea.

But as the balloon started to inflate, the inflation mechanism arms got tangled, and the entire operation had to be abandoned. The giant black balloon collects heat from the sun instead of using burners like hot-air balloons normally use, so it needs to launch during the day.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE challenges participants to construct a delivery system that will get a rover to the Moon, where the robot has to drive for about 500 meters, take high-resolution pictures of its surroundings, and then send them back home.

Undoubtedly, the ARCA team will try again.

See the images from Monday’s launch attempt.

Google Lunar X PRIZE

Source: Nature Blog

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

tacitus November 17, 2009 at 3:20 PM

I assume the staging via tether is to reduce the cost since each stage uses identical components.

I believe at least one American company has drawn up plans for an airborne launch platform that would be reached by airship. We’re a long way from anything like that though.

I wish them well. I assume they are not idiots, have done their sums, and expect to be successful. Anything effort towards lowering the cost of launching into space gets my support!

WriteNoMore November 17, 2009 at 2:18 PM

Wow, love the heroic music. Very inspiring, cinematic even.

The rocket concept looks interesting.

tomster42 November 17, 2009 at 2:18 PM

Wow, that’s a VERY complicated way to launch a rocket. I think a zepplin launching platform would be much cooler.

Olaf November 17, 2009 at 2:30 PM

Very cool but I am wondering if it is not inefficient use of the rockets. you have also to pull the cable which is also mass. And the drag of the 2 oter rocktes instead of one single rocket with drag.

Sili November 17, 2009 at 5:14 PM

I love the balloon idea! And I’m impressed if they’re using hot air rather than helium/hydrogen. I seem to recall that they routinely put up tonnes of equipment to 80 km with those (there was a record of 6.5 tonnes quite recently wasn’t there?).

But those tethers? At first I was impressed that they’d be able to survive the stress of the acceleration, but having seen the video I’m now far more puzzled that they can withstand the exhaust.

Lawrence B. Crowell November 17, 2009 at 6:14 PM

This is complicated. I am not sure what the point of the balloon is exactly. In the end it just puts the initial flight of the rocket a small radial distance up. It saves the rockets from having to climb out of a rather small delta V of gravity potential.

LC

Astrofiend November 17, 2009 at 6:32 PM

Lawrence B. Crowell Says:
November 17th, 2009 at 6:14 pm

“This is complicated. I am not sure what the point of the balloon is exactly. In the end it just puts the initial flight of the rocket a small radial distance up. It saves the rockets from having to climb out of a rather small delta V of gravity potential.”

Precisely what I thought at first before I watched the video, but I guess in the end its sole purpose it is just to string out the three rockets with tension in the line joining them. You’d have to have a large launch tower to achieve the same thing with enough tether between them to allow the trailing secondary and tertiary rockets to be out of the way of the hot exhaust of the leading rockets, not to mention some elaborate system on the launch pad to control the launch of such an unusual setup.

On a separate note – the video shows nothing to do with the moon. What’s the deal with that?

On another note – I love this system just because it is so unusual! I want to build one myself!

Brian Sheen November 18, 2009 at 2:38 AM

Reminds me of a similar result when Qinetic tried to launch a helium balloon with two pilots off a ship 20 miles off Cornwall.

The story is that all the guys on the ship spoke with high pitched squeeky voices, when the fabric tore!!

We had a micrometeorite collecting package on board.

Dark Gnat November 18, 2009 at 1:26 PM

yeah, I’m not sute the cable would survive beeing blasted like that, plus there is a possibility of tangles.

I also think that the lower “stages” would be blown around in the wind, which would cause stress and introduce a need for a lot angle correction.

Still the idea of using the Sun to heat the air in the baloon is a good one.

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