Floating into space and other ways of getting there (1/2)
Published 16 January 2023 by Rob La Frenais
How to get into near-space, orbit, or outer space without burning up or polluting the atmosphere during the climate emergency on Earth? Written by scientists, engineers, artists, curators and cultural specialists in space exploration, the book “Space Without Rockets” (UV Editions – 2022) adresses the ways in which we could steer out our spaceship Earth and travel away to the Moon, the planets, the stars and beyond, sustainably. Makery publishes three of the full texts from this essential reading. First text (part one) by Rob La Frenais.
“The main civilian space programs rely on flying in a system where ascent means strapping yourself atop a giant flying gas tank with powerful engines tweaked to the brink of exploding … (and) plummeting back toward to Earth inside a man-made meteor”. Airship To Orbit, John Powell.
Scientists have written about the effects on the atmosphere of the exponentially increasing number of rockets being launched into space and the way this will add to the climate disaster that we know is already here. Technologies for travelling around the planet, for heating and cooling buildings and industrial plants and for maintaining a modern lifestyle are just not keeping up with accelerating climate change. I have written in the past about the fact that airship technology could sustainably replace the use of aircraft, but hardly any governments or corporations are pursuing this path. The clean skies during the worst of the pandemic (so far) have again been filled with passengers rushing around the planet again, despite the lack of staff to operate the airlines. Apart from Google’s Sergey Brin’s LTA, who is launching the 180 metre electric powered Pathfinder 3 next year, the main airship companies are generally promoting novelty tourist flights. Even the Pathfinder 3 will be years away from being able to replace airliners, being mainly aimed at disaster relief. LTA’s director Alan Weston: “We believe lighter than air technology has the capacity to speed up humanitarian aid by reaching remote locations with little infrastructure, and to lower carbon emissions for air and cargo transportation.” (cited in ‘Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s airship start-up grows rapidly’. Financial Times June 3 2022, Tim Bradshaw.)
Such disasters and the need for this relief will become more common not only because of global warming but also alarming sea level rises, some saying 5 metres by the end of the century. Bill McGuire, who writes elsewhere in this handbook speaks of just one glacier in the East Antarctic in his ‘Cool Earth’ newsletter: “Satellite data has revealed that a cluster of colossal glaciers, which together make up about an eighth of the coastline of East Antarctica, are starting to melt as the surrounding ocean gets progressively warmer. The loss of the giant (It’s about the size of Spain!) Totten Glacier – just one of the cluster – would, on its own, raise global sea levels by more than three metres. The data show that it and its companions are now moving increasingly rapidly seawards and thinning as they do so, meaning that even the worst predictions for rising sea levels may be optimistic”.
Skyhooks to StarTrams
The irony is that the only way we can see this data is from satellites in orbit and that takes rocket launches, seventy two so far at the time of writing in 2022 alone. What are the options for getting into space in the near future without rockets? There is a whole menagerie of ideas in the history of spaceflight of unrealised non-rocket options. The list is long, starting with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Space Tower, ranging through Skyhooks (orbiting tethers), Space Fountains, Orbital Rings, Launch Loops, electromagnetic mass drivers, railguns, coil guns, and most intriguing of all, StarTram. While these may all be suitable studies for long-term projects like the 100 Year Starship they all still belong in the realm of science fiction and are not being commercially developed or adopted by space agencies, as far as I know. As we all know, we don’t have that long. The only new launch technologies receiving serious investment are stand-alone and hybrid balloon launches, space elevators and more recently, SpinLaunch, which has developed from some of the technologies listed above.
Getting into space with balloons
Let’s start with the most realistic option – balloon technology. The main problem with getting into space with balloons is that they burst when they get very high and without some kind of technology that has yet to be invented they cannot reach the escape velocity needed to get into orbit. According to NASA a spacecraft leaving the surface of Earth, for example, needs to be going about 11 kilometres (7 miles) per second, or over 40,000 kilometers per hour (25,000 miles per hour), to enter orbit. The closest to getting there is John Powell of JP Aerospace, who has the idea of a three stage programme to get into orbit, with an Orbital Ascender which departs a Dark Sky Station using some kind of hybrid technology.
I asked John Powell, founder and director of JP Aerospace, how long would it take them get the Orbital Ascender into orbit without actually burning up rocket fuel? “Our system is never to use traditional rocket fuel. It will be driven be a hybrid plasma engine. We’ve done about 150 test firings on a small scale of the engine. We’re just now starting to scale the engines up.” So they are on the way. They continue at the stratospheric launch stage with an intensive campaign this year. “This last flight was a bit of a celebration. It was our 200th flight. It was a balloon flight to 102,900 feet. We were tested new valves and telemetry equipment for the airship. We also carried a bunch of student payloads and a few commercial ones to pay for it all.” I asked him if there had been any sign that the established space agencies and big commercial space companies are accepting your viewpoint, now we are even closer to a climate disaster and there is more science being done about black carbon in the atmosphere? “Sadly NASA and the rest of the space industry have doubled down on the traditional rocket. Most of the alternative programs have vanished. All the new space companies appear to want to be little Elons…”
MIR Solar Balloons
Space agencies have also experimented with balloon flights into near space. The CNES MIR balloon programme, developed in the 70’s and continuing to this day combines long duration flights with height. From the scientific ballooning magazine Stratocat: “ At the beginning of the 70s the French atmospheric research program needed to find a new platform that was versatile and adaptable to any climatic circum- stance (the Arctic, the tropics, etc.), cheap, simple operation and above all that allowed the realisation of long-duration flights. Thus, after several years of study, scientists of the aeronautical service of CNRS came to the conclusion that the original concept of the Montgolfier brothers (with hot air instead of gas) could be used to develop a new type of ball that would allow not only long-duration stratospheric flights, but also could make ‘vertical excursions’ that is to change height with just opening and closing a valve and without carrying ballast.The first two models of the aerostat, were manufactured using dark polyethylene to facilitate the absorption of solar heat… However, none of them survived the critical night stage. To solve this, they devised an ingenious solution: counteract the cooling of the aerostat by the absorption of infrared radiation from the Earth.The new prototype that was christened MIR (acronym of Montgolfière InfraRouge), instead of being manufactured of dark material, was composed of two well-differentiated hemispheres: the bottom of transparent polyethy- lene, which facilitated the passage of telluric radiation, and the upper part made of aluminised mylar forming a cavity that allowed the retention of heat absorbed by the balloon, raising the internal temperature and giving it greater lift”. MIR flights continued to take place in Canada, Australia and the Kiruna spaceport in Northern Sweden.
However, the MIR programme was discontinued in 2009 while a new flight technology was being developed, the New Operational System for the Control of Aerostats (NOSYCA), starting flights in 2014 which are “especially adapted to Zero Pressure Balloons and allow flying up to 40 km high with a scientific gondola up to 1 ton”. This is high, to give a context the Kármán line – where space officially starts – is 100 KM. Launches and campaigns now take place mainly at the Timmins Stratospheric Launch Site operated by the Canadian Space Agency, which is itself a major hub for scientific stratospheric launches and which has a special agreement with CNES to share facilities.