The concept of a rockoon (from rocket and balloon, if you’ve not worked it out) is almost as old as modern rocketry and was conceived in the 1940s by the US military during the development of ballistic missiles. The Cambridge students hope to fly rockoons in a parabola up to 100 km (62 miles) – well into space – at a cost of less than $1500.
“What you end up with is your large helium balloon with your rocket suspended beneath it,” Cunningham explains. “Then, before the balloon bursts, you send a command to launch the rocket and it’ll penetrate the balloon and, if all the calculations work, get into space.”
All well and good. But to get into orbit you need a lot more power and a good deal more cash.
Until recently, your best bet for flying a spacecraft in orbit was to build a CubeSat. These miniaturised satellites are based on a 10cm (4 inches) cube and usually “piggyback” on other satellite launches to keep costs down. You can buy kits for CubeSats, which are increasingly popular amongst academic groups, and Nasa even has a programme to launch some of them for free. However the price of putting a mission together, at upwards of $30,000 (excluding launch), is still well beyond most of us. Fortunately Zac Manchester, from Cornell University in New York, has designed a way for lots of people to get onboard a CubeSat.
He has plans to launch an alternative, smaller spacecraft called a sprite. Little bigger than a thumbnail, these are as simple as spacecraft get – consisting of a few solar cells, a microprocessor and a transmitter. They are the modern equivalent of a beeping Sputnik. Zac’s mission packs multiple sprites into a single CubeSat. Once in orbit the tiny craft will spring from their mothership to orbit the earth on their own (over a few weeks their orbit will decay so they burn up in the atmosphere). What’s really cool about this scheme is the price: each sprite costs just $300. The whole project has been funded through donations and anyone who pledged the full $300 gets a sprite to call their own.
“It’s not just that people can say ‘I own 2% of this big monolithic satellite,’” says Manchester. “It’s ‘I own this little thing in space that has my name on it, it’s mine’. I think that personal ownership aspect of it makes it very exciting.” So exciting, that he’s captured the imagination of the worlds’ space geeks and sold the lot.
Over the next few months, the Cornell team will be building the sprites and putting the satellite together. Here at Space Station, we’ll be following their progress with a vested interest because we’ve managed to secure one of the last remaining sprites on your behalf. We plan to follow the project in more detail as we get closer to launch date. But if all goes to plan, this time next year, readers of BBC Future and listeners to my podcast will have a satellite to call their own. And it won’t cost you a cent.