To get things into orbit at the moment, you need a pretty big rocket. While companies like SpaceX are trying to bring down the cost of launching by making their rockets reusable, the technology is still too expensive for some.
Maybe, though, there’s another way. That’s what Spanish company Zero 2 Infinity is betting on, as it’s been developing a system to launch small payloads into orbit from a balloon. Earlier this month, it performed the first ever rocket launch from a stratospheric balloon.
On March 1 (details have only just been released), the company released a high-altitude balloon from a boat off the Spanish coast, with a small prototype launcher called Bloostar attached underneath. At a height of 25 kilometers (16 miles), a quarter of the way to the official boundary of space, the launcher ignited its engine and flew into the stratosphere.
A gif of the launch on March 1, 2017. Zero 2 Infinity
This prototype was small, and it re-entered the atmosphere and landed in the ocean via parachute not long after. But the company is hoping that, in the future, they can use this same technology to launch experiments and microsatellites into orbit for a small cost.
“This patented technique is less risky than any systems used until now,” Zero 2 Infinity said in a statement. “The rocket-powered phase starts already from above 95 percent of the mass of the atmosphere, getting there with no polluting emissions.”
The company’s ultimate goal for Bloostar is to create a larger version that can carry small satellites to orbit, carried in a covered nose cone at its front. It will be a three-stage vehicle, with two rings of engines igniting in sequence to get the payload to orbit. They hope to test this for the first time in 2018.
Blooster is intended to eventually take payloads into orbit. Zero 2 Infinity
Alongside Bloostar, Zero 2 Infinity is also working on Bloon, a people-carrying capsule that will also be lofted into the stratosphere by a balloon. They’ve performed several unmanned prototype tests so far, but eventually they want to take up to six people (four passengers and two pilots) on flights to an altitude of 36 kilometers (22 miles).
The ascent would take two hours, with a further two hours spent floating at this altitude, before Bloon makes its way back down via a steerable parachute. Another company, called World View Enterprises, is working on similar technology.
The test of Bloostar was impressive enough for now, though. They probably won’t be causing Elon Musk any sleepless nights any time soon, but they might just give universities and research organizations a way to send experiments and satellites into orbit for a relatively low cost (a spokesperson for the company told IFLScience they were aiming for half the price of their competitors).