The Case for High-Altitude Balloon Launches

By: Richard Nederlander

September 1, 2018

Image taken from LDSD

The spaceflight companies that currently make up the small-satellite (small-sat) launch sector are unable to meet demand for their launches. They are also unable to lower their prices to make launches affordable to small satellite companies and academic groups, and the length of time leading up to a launch (often several years for small satellites) is unpractical and unnecessary. There are several reasons that the small-sat launch industry has, in this sense, failed to catch up with increasing demand for launches. For one, the industry has historically been heavily reliant on large-satellite launches and so R&D focused exclusively on surface-based launches. This has resulted in an unfortunate cessation of launch innovation and commercialization since around the time rocket technology was first invented. However, the demand for small-sat launches has given rise to alternative means of launch. One example is balloon-assisted launches. At proximitE, we believe that high-altitude balloon launches for rockets are the future of the small satellite industry.

Balloon-assisted rocket launches has already been tested and proven successfully, reliable, and affordable. Since the 1970’s with the Viking program, NASA has been developing and perfecting this launch technology. Ultimately, the research culminated with NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) program, where they deployed a small payload above Earth’s atmosphere using this technology, so they could test the payload’s parachute capabilities. The balloon-assisted rocket launch worked smoothly during both tests. Asked why they chose balloon-assisted rocket launches instead of surface-launches, project manager Dr. Mark Adler said it was more affordable for their circumstances.

The technology is also being implemented in the private industry, although at a very slow pace. In Spain, Zero2Infinity used a balloon-assisted rocket launch to put a small satellite into an unstable orbit around Earth. In the United States, World View Enterprises carries payloads above Earth’s atmosphere for hours at a time. Balloon-assisted launches have the potential to break the standard >$10,000 per pound for launch. It is usually much higher, and this threshold only exists for those satellites that are considered “secondary” payloads. This is because launching at higher altitudes allows rocket engines to produce more thrust. This is due to the thinner air, which allows for a better plume. The vehicle also pushes against less air density at launch compared to at the surface of the Earth.