Reinventing Space Flight

A small group of scientists has come to Fairbanks, Alaska to realize what may seem an impossible dream... to revolutionize space travel. They're there to test components of this rocket by sending them aboard helium balloons to an altitude of 30 kilometers into the harsh environment of space.

Above the north and south poles, conditions are about as harsh as you can get. Our planet is bombarded with a steady stream of charged particles from the Sun. Earth's magnetic field accelerates and channels them, turning the night into a spectacle of color.

While most astronauts train to live and work in zero gravity, or to move around in bulky space suits, these would-be space explorers are preparing to negotiate some of Earth's harshest environments. Once they launch their payload, it will rise slowly into the upper atmosphere. After drifting through the night, above 99% of Earth's atmosphere, the payload will detach from the balloon and parachute down to the ground.

Where it goes and finally lands will depend on highly variable wind conditions. The team must be prepared to retrieve it across a large stretch of Alaska's snowy wilderness. To understand the revolutionary nature of the idea they are pursuing, we go back to the dawn of rocketry.

In over a hundred years, the technology of a rocket has hardly changed. Fill a cylinder with volatile chemicals, and then ignite them in a controlled explosion. The force of the blast is what pushes the rocket up. Nowadays, chemical rockets are the only ones with enough thrust to overcome Earth's gravity and carry a payload into orbit. But they are not very efficient.

The heavier the payload, the more fuel a rocket needs to lift it into space. But the more fuel a rocket carries the more fuel it needs. One of the fabled Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era, for example, weighed in at 177,000 kilograms. Filled up with fuel, it weighed almost 16 times that. The space shuttle, with maximum payload, weighed about 100 thousand kilos. Add tanks and fuel, and it lifted off at 2 million kilograms.

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