I once stood on a hillside in northern England watching a group of enthusiasts attempting to launch a rocket. A small crowd gathered in the rain as we waited for the countdown. Nothing happened for a while…and then nothing happened again…and then we all went home. Anyone who ever turned up for a Shuttle launch will be familiar with the experience.
Even small rockets are hard to build and even harder to launch successfully. After all, it took Wernher Von Braun the resources of the Nazi war machine and thousands of slave labourers to successfully develop the V2, and the equivalent of almost $100 billion (in today’s money) to put men on the Moon. Even now, it costs at least $12 million to charter the cheapest launch vehicle to orbit.
Rockets are hard. So how can us enthusiasts ever get to launch anything? Do not despair, here at BBC Future we’ve been investigating the options for you and it turns out you do not have to have the resources of Richard Branson or Elon Musk to get something into space. And to prove it, we even have launch plans of our own.
Floating in space
One of the least expensive options to start your career as a rocket scientists is to blow up a balloon. A very big balloon. Amateur clubs, such as the Cambridge University Spaceflight society in the UK, fly helium-filled meteorological balloons up to an altitude of 30km (19 miles) with payloads as varied as teddy bears, cameras, computers and scientific instruments. They can even be used to send a man… well, a Lego man. The recent launch of a Lego Man into space by two Canadian teenagers has become a big hit on YouTube.
The technology involved in flying a legonaut or cosmoteddy is relatively simple – inflate your balloon, attach payload and watch it go. The trick is getting them back. As your balloon rises through the atmosphere, the air pressure decreases and the balloon expands. There comes a point where the latex fabric is stretched so thin, that it bursts and the payload (toy) is released. As long as you’ve got a parachute between the payload and the balloon, your toy of choice should float safely back to Earth. If you’ve put a tracking device on board, you might even be able to find it.
Here’s the important bit: if you’re planning on launching a weather balloon you will almost certainly need permission from the aviation authorities. The Cambridge club, for instance, has a permanent licence but still needs to call air traffic control before launch. Balloons and planes don’t mix.
The images sent back of the curvature of the Earth by Lego Man are stunning and you can certainly see the blackness of space. But the fact is, weather balloons don’t go high enough and are still well within the atmosphere. Only one tiny step for Lego-kind I’m afraid. So how do you go higher?
“Typically when you want to go into space, you launch a rocket,” says Edward Cunningham, a third year physics undergraduate at Cambridge. “To launch a rocket from the ground requires lots and lots of thrust, quite a large rocket and lots of money.” The challenge is not just overcoming gravity but air resistance. “So, what we’ve been thinking,” he says, “is whether we can get past all this atmosphere and then launch a rocket. So, we’re building a rockoon.”