Using Balloons to Launch Rockets

Credit: LEO Aerospace

Since the turn of the century, space exploration has changed dramatically thanks to the unprecedented rise of commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace). With the goal of leveraging new technologies and lowering the costs of launching payloads into space, some truly innovative and novel ideas are being put forth. This includes the idea of using balloons to carry rockets to very high-altitudes, then firing the payloads to their desired orbits.

Also known as “Rockoons”, this concept has informed Leo Aerospace‘s fully-autonomous and fully-reusable launch system – which consists of a high-altitude aerostat (balloon) and a rocket launch platform. With the first commercial launches slated for next year, the company plans to use this system to provide regular launch services to the microsatellite (aka. CubeSat) market in the coming years.

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Bloostar: Launching Satellites via Balloon

The recent flight of Aistechsat-1. Image credit: Zero2Infinity.

Is there a better way to get to space? Current traditional methods using expendable rockets launching from the surface of the Earth are terribly inefficient. About 90% of the bulk and mass of what you see on the launch pad is expended in the first few minutes of the mission, just getting the tiny payload above the murk of Earth’s atmosphere and out of the planet’s gravity well.

One idea that’s been out there for a while is to loft a launch platform into the upper atmosphere, and simply start from there. One Spanish-based company named Zero2infinity plans to do just that.

Recently, on May 20th, 2016, Zero2infinity lofted Aistech’s first satellite into the upper atmosphere, aboard its Sub-Orbital Platform in Near Space balloon system. Zero2infinity uses these Near Space balloons to carry client payloads up above 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere. This is a cheap and effective way to get payloads into a very space-like environment.

These near Space Balloon platforms typically reach an altitude of 28 kilometres (17 miles) above the surface of the Earth. For reference, the Armstrong Line (where the boiling point of water equals human body temperature) starts 18 kilometers up, and the Kármán line — the internationally recognized boundary where space begins — starts at an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles up.

Most satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) go around the Earth 300 to 600 kilometers up, and the International Space Station resides in a 400 by 400 kilometer standard orbit.

The mission of Aistechsat-1 is to “provide thermal images of the Earth and also help with maritime and aeronautical tracking,” Zero2infinity representative Iris Silverio told Universe Today via email. Zero2infinity plans on conducting another balloon test with Aistechsat-1 later this month on an as yet to be announced date. The final decision all hinges on the weather and the wind speeds aloft.

Aistech envisions a constellation of 25 such nanosatellites encircling the planet.

Zero2infinity also has a grander vision: eventually launching satellites into Low Earth Orbit via balloon. Known as Bloostar, this system would loft a three stage rocket with the company’s existing and proven Near Space balloon technology. The ‘launch’ would occur high in the upper atmosphere, as the engines take over to get the payload into orbit.

Getting there; the Bloostar approach to low Earth orbit. Image credit: Zero2Infinity.
Getting there; the Bloostar approach to low Earth orbit. Image credit: Zero2Infinity.

The idea is certainly attractive. Dubbed a ‘shortcut to space,’ the three engine booster rings depicted are a fraction of the size of typical rocket stages. The toroid ring-shaped stages are simply nestled one inside the other, like Russian dolls. Zero2infinity also envisions scaling its ‘Bloon’ platform for micro and nano payloads… and I’ll bet that a Bloostar atmospheric launch will be an interesting spectacle to watch with binoculars from the ground, especially around dawn or dusk.

Another possible advantage includes a much more spacious payload nose cone, meaning no more folding of satellites for launch and unfolding them in orbit. More than a few payloads have suffered setbacks because of this, including the Galileo mission to Jupiter, whose main antenna failed to unfurl completely in 1990.

According to an email discussion with Zero2infinity representative Silverio, the first commercial Bloostar launch is set for 2019, with possible orbital trials starting as early as 2018. Bloostar deployments will occur off the coast of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. The initial Bloostar launcher will deploy payloads up to 75 kilograms in a 600 kilometer orbit around the Earth.

Rise of the Rockoons

The idea of conducting launches via balloon, known as a ‘rockoon,’ has been around for a while. Thus far, only sub-orbital launches have been conducted in this manner.

A Deacon rockoon shortly after a U.S. Navy shipboard launch. Public Domain image.
A Deacon rockoon shortly after a U.S. Navy shipboard launch. Public Domain image.

The first balloon-based launch of a rocket occurred on August 9th, 1953, when a Deacon rockoon successfully carried out a sub-orbital launch high over the Atlantic Ocean. Though several companies have kicked around the idea of launching an orbital satellite via balloon-based platform, Zero2infinity might just be the first to actually accomplish it. The United States Department of Defense has considered the idea of launching satellites (and satellite-killing missiles) via the U.S. Air Force’s high flying F-15 Eagle aircraft. Orbital Sciences does currently use its Pegasus-XL rocket carried aloft by a L1011 aircraft to place satellites in orbit. That’s how NASA’s NuSTAR X-ray telescope got into space in 2012.

There is one main problem facing balloon-based space launches: weather. Unlike aircraft, balloons are often at the whims of the winds aloft, and sometimes stubbornly refuse to go where you want them to. Often, an orbital launch will need to target a precise azimuth heading, a tricky sort of pointing to do from underneath a balloon. Still, we’ve already seen precedent for overcoming this in the effective pointing of balloon-based telescopes, such as the BLAST telescope.

Bloostar might just provide an innovative and cost-effective way to head into orbit, very soon.

-Check out this 2014 article from Universe Today on Zero2Infinity.

-Zero2Infinity also caught last year’s total solar eclipse over the Arctic from aloft.

Balloon launcher Zero2Infinity Sets Its Sights to the Stars

Zero2Infinity announced on October 15, their plans to begin micro-satellite launches to low-earth orbit by 2017. (Credit: OIIOO)

Clearly, the sky is not the limit for balloon launcher Zero2Infinity. Based in Barcelona, Spain, the company announced this week their plans to launch payloads to orbit using a balloon launch system. The Rockoon is a portmanteau, as Lewis Carroll would have said: the blend of the words rocket and balloon.

The launch system announced by the company is called Bloostar. The Rockoon system begins with a balloon launch to stratospheric altitudes followed by the igniting of a 3 stage rocket to achieve orbit. The Rockoon concept is not new. Dr. James Van Allen with support from the US Navy developed and launched the first Rockoons in 1949. Those were just sounding rockets, Bloostar will take payloads to low-earth orbit and potentially beyond.

The Zero2Infinity Bloostar launch vehicle. Three stages will use a set of liquid fuel engines clustered as concentric toroids. (Photo Credit: 0II00)
The Zero2Infinity Bloostar launch vehicle. Three stages will use a set of liquid fuel engines clustered as concentric toroids. (Photo Credit: 0II00)

The advantage of rocket launch from a balloon is that it takes the Earth’s atmosphere out as a factor in design and as a impediment to reaching orbit. The first phase of the Bloostar system takes out 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere by reaching an altitude of over 20 km (>65,000 feet). Aerodynamics is not a factor so the stages are built out rather than up. The stages of the Bloostar design are a set of concentric rings which are sequentially expended as it ascends to orbit.

Zero2Infinity is developing a liquid fuel engine that they emphasize is environmentally friendly. The first stage firing of Bloostar will last 160 seconds, reach 250 km of altitude and an inertial speed of 3.7 km/s. This is about half the velocity necessary for reach a stable low earth orbit. The second stage will fire for 230 seconds and achieve an altitude of 530 km with velocity of 5.4 km/s. The 3rd and final stage motor will fire at least twice with a coast period to achieve the final orbit. Zero2Infinity states that their Bloostar system will be capable of placing a 75kg (165 lbs) payload into a 600 km (372 mi) sun-synchronous orbit. In contrast, the International Space Station orbits at 420 km (260 mi) altitude.

The Bloostar launch phases. Zero2Infinity intends to de-orbit the final stage to minimize their contribution to the growing debris field in low-earth orbit. Their plans are to launch from a ship at sea. (Photo Credit: 0II00)
The Bloostar launch phases. Zero2Infinity intends to de-orbit the final stage to minimize their contribution to the growing debris field in low-earth orbit. Their plans are to launch from a ship at sea. (Photo Credit: 0II00)

For the developing cubesat space industry, a 75 kg payload to orbit is huge. A single cubesat 10x10x10 cm (1U) will typically weigh about 1 kg so Bloostar would be capable of launching literally a constellation of cubesats or in the other extreme, a single micro-satellite with potentially its own propulsion system to go beyond low-earth orbit.

The Rockoon concept is not unlike what Scaled Composites undertakes with a plane and rocket. Their Whiteknight planes lift the SpaceShips to 50,000 feet for takeoff whereas the Zero2Infinity balloon will loft Bloostar to 65,000 feet or higher. The increased altitude of the balloon launch reduces the atmospheric density to half of what it is at 50,000 feet and altogether about 8% of the density at sea level.

The act of building and launching a stratospheric balloon to 30 km (100,000 feet) altitude with >100 kg instrument payloads is a considerable accomplishment. This is just not the releasing of a balloon but involves plenty of logistics and telecommunications with instrumentation and also the returning of payloads safely to Earth. This is clearly half of what is necessary to reach orbit.

Bloostar is blazing new ground in Spain. The ground tests of their liquid fuel rocket engine are the first of its kinds in the country. Zero2Infinity began launching balloons in 2009. The founder and CEO, Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales is an aeronautical engineer educated in Spain with R&D experience involving ESA, MIT and Boeing. He has speerheaded organizations and activities in his native Spain. In 2002 he presented to the World Space Congress in Houston, the paper “The Role of Balloons in the Future Development of Space Tourism”.


Zero2Infinity Press Release

Bloostar Launch Cycle