Wales

Balloon 'taxi service' to take satellites to space

The view from the balloon at a high altitude over west Wales Image copyright B2space
Image caption The balloon has already been tested up to high altitude over west Wales

A satellite delivery "taxi service" using a giant helium balloon is being developed by a start-up company.

B2space is looking primarily to launch commercial satellites, but it has even fielded an inquiry about "space funerals", sending ashes into space.

The plan is to save fuel and money by using the balloon to lift a rocket to high altitude, before launching it.

The ultimate goal is to manufacture in Snowdonia, employing 100 people.

Described as a satellite "taxi service" by the company, balloons have already been sent to the edge of the atmosphere to test their components and systems - their first launch was from Snowdonia Aerospace Centre, and they have since taken off from Shetland Space Centre.

Image copyright B2space
Image caption An artist's impression demonstrates the balloon lifting a rocket up high above the earth to the thinner atmosphere, before it blasts off

B2space's technology will use a giant helium balloon to lift an unmanned rocket up over the sea to a height of around 22-25 miles (35-40km). The rocket, carrying a satellite, will then blast into space to deliver its cargo, while the balloon deflates and falls to earth to be retrieved from the sea.

This will be cheaper because the rocket does not have to power itself up through dense air up to 22 miles, using 85% less fuel, and the rocket will be smaller, the company claimed.

Image copyright B2space
Image caption The technology will transport unmanned rockets to high altitudes

To begin with the balloons will be filled with helium, but this is a finite resource, so eventually the company will use hydrogen, with safety features to prevent fire.

B2space plans to start building the prototype for small rocket launches next year, to take off from locations, including Llanbedr in Snowdonia and Shetland.

They are also planning to provide a platform for scientific research at high altitude, something they hope they can offer customers commercially next year.

Image copyright B2space
Image caption Llanbedr airfield, as viewed by a camera on the balloon during a test

This week the company has been at the UK space agency conference in Newport, networking with an industry discussing topics such as enhanced communications, defence, climate change and space debris.

But it seems the sector is not just thinking about these high-level issues - B2Space has even fielded calls from overseas asking after the possibility of space funerals, spreading ashes high above earth.

They have also had inquiries about creating a shooting star effect on demand by dropping an object that will burn up as it enters the earth's atmosphere.

Image caption Two of the founders, Valentin Canales and Victor Montero, at the UK space conference on earth in Newport this week

The company was founded in 2016 by four Spanish friends who met working at Airbus in Filton, Bristol, but they are now moving to Newport.

Most of their funding has come from private investors, and they have had some money from the Welsh Government, but Valentin Canales, technical and development director, said this was no more than would have been offered by other areas.

He said being by closer to the sea in Newport was important because of the nature of the technology.

"Also we can get engineers from Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea," he added.

"Newport already has an established industry, and the office space is cheaper so we have more money to spend on the best people."

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