It’s been a while since space exploration was the sole province of national behemoths like NASA, despite the relative infancy of the commercial space sector. A small budget might prevent you from launching human payloads, but there’s still plenty of options at the bottom end of the funding scale… along with some tantalising enticements for an outfit with big dreams. [image by ComputerHotline]
Romanian company ARCA is one such outfit, and they’re taking a stab at the Google-funded Lunar X Prize using comparatively cheap and simple technology:
… a balloon that can carry ARCA’s European Lunar Explorer (ELE) space probe into the upper atmosphere, eliminating the need for a traditional launch pad and allowing ARCA to launch close to the equator from a sea platform. The “0” pressure balloon design is similar to a giant black hot-air balloon that uses solar energy to heat the air inside, instead of the burner that normal hot-air balloons use.
Once the balloon soars above 11 miles (18 km), the three-stage rocket slung below will fire and boost itself into low Earth orbit. ELE will then travel to the moon and deploy its Lunar Lander, which resembles a knobby rubber ball that uses its own rocket engine to ensure a soft landing.
ARCA’s lander itself isn’t really designed to do much when (or rather if) it arrives on the Lunar surface; because of the way the X Prize is defined, reaching the Moon is more important than achieving anything there. But as with most private space-launch initiatives, it’s all about proof-of-concept – once they know they can make the journey, they can start thinking about what to cart along next time.
Balloon-launch projects always remind me of Zion Cluster from William Gibson’s early novels, which – if I remember correctly – was colonised by exactly this sort of cheap-and-cheerful bootstrap approach.