back to article Earth orbit for £1,000? You must be joking

We're obliged to all those readers who sent in suggestions as to just what El Reg's new Special Projects Bureau should be doing with its multi-billion pound budget and mountain fab bunker complex, and the first thing that caught our eye was the N-Prize – "a challenge to launch an impossibly small satellite into orbit on a …


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  1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Calls for systems engineering of *very* high order.

    Which I am totally incapable of performing.

    Don't be fooled by the payload size. Smaller ¬= easier below a certain size (It's that *proving* your "satellite" has made 9 orbits that makes it that little bit trickier).

  2. M Gale

    So that's your acronym then.

    Low Orbit Helium Assisted N-Winner

    Although, 19.99g max? Don't know if you'd even be able to carry a battery into orbit, let alone anything else. Can you fit a solar cell, capacitor and a pulsing radio transmitter into a coin-sized container? And could you pick it up through all that atmosphere? How does anyone intend to prove 9 orbits with a payload that small?

    Severe odds indeed.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      Maybe you can take the measurement in orbit?

      1. jp1000

        mass != weight

        grams is a measure of mass. It doesn't change in orbit.

    2. Nigel 11

      Sputnik-1 redux

      Picking up a radio emitter is not a problem provided you know where to look. Think of radio-telescopes picking up emissions from other galaxies close to the edge of the observable universe. Compared to that, something emitting 100mW pulses from low orbit would be trivial.

      Tracking the micro-sat from launch would be the tricky bit. Guiding it into any particular orbit harder still.

      Another idea that might work is a lightweight corner-cube relector and an earth-based laser illuminator. After all, they measure the distance to the moon by laser-illuminating a corner-cube that the manned moon missions left behind! One for low earth orbit could be much smaller and lighter.

      1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        Detecting it from orbit

        I imagine the laser reflector would be very hit and miss. But surely there are enough Radio Hams in the El Reg's audience that they could do some very-long base-line interferometry? Synchronisation could be fun, but not unachievable - if the frequencies are low enough.

        1. Jonathan Richards 1

          Hit and miss...

          Yabbut, hitting what? Amateurs shining lasers into the sky? What could possibly go wrong!

          Indeed I wonder a bit about the regulation of this. Genuine request for information: what bureaucracy and red tape must one negotiate to get permission to attempt to put something into orbit? (esp. from the UK, although any illumination is welcome).

          Icon: It couldn't possibly go *this* badly wrong. I think.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        A mylar balloon would be trackable in orbit and not need any batteries or solar cells - the two Echo passive communications satellites in the 1950s were nothing more than huge balloons that reflected radio waves.

        1. M Gale

          Mylar Balloons

          Possibly doable. According to the rules, the little sparklet bulb or whatever you're inflating the thing with needn't be part of the 19.99g payload either. So long as everything separates, I imagine you could pack quite a lot of mylar into just under 20g.

          Another problem, even assuming you can build a rocket that can go from 0 to orbital velocity, and do so in a light enough package that a helium/hydrogen balloon can lift it up to the edge of the atmosphere, is guidance. I've seen a lot of comments on the N-Prize site to the effect of "oh just get the angle right and you're sorted", but I just can't see that happening without a just-suborbital projectile bouncing off the atmosphere like a skimming stone and losing precious speed through unintended aerobraking. That or ending up in a very highly elliptical orbit with a perigee of somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. For a bit of fun, download yourselves a copy of Orbiter (it's freeware, go google for it) and see what happens when you just point the Delta Glider "somewhere in that direction" and give it some welly without any control.

          Also, doing this WITHOUT some kind of System On Board-derived guidance system just isn't geeky enough. You can fit a capable-enough computer into a SIM card these days and servos are nicely lightweight too. Solid state gyroes are relatively inexpensive and light enough. Horizon detection would be tricky but the hardware component is essentially an array of IR sensors and maybe a second SoB. You might also want to be able to keep the delivery vehicle stable enough to be able to fire a second stabilising burn halfway around before flinging your mylar jet-can out. You'd be pushing the bounds of the £999.99 budget, but so long as you can McGuyver a lot of ingredients it does only seem ALMOST impossible.

          On a parting note, did the X-Prize lawyers seriously send one of their legal love letters to the N-Prize organiser?

    3. stucs201
      Paris Hilton

      No, no lohan

      If this is to come after PARIS it needs to be HILTON:







    4. Dave 62


      I think you've hit the nail on the head with that acronym, I've been thinking it would have to be "low-orbit helium..." ever since the PARIS mission.

      But what if a rocoon isn't viable?

      How feasible is hydrogen fuelling for under a grand?

      1. Frumious Bandersnatch

        top acronym

        I was thinking on reading the article that if a helium balloon is too costly, why not make a hydrogen one? It's not like it's going to matter if it blows up. I reckon (in a totally non-numerical sense) a lacquered paper balloon could retain enough hydrogen to lift it quite a distance. You wouldn't necessarily need any expensive pressurised hydrogen tanks. If you had some sort of chemical or electrolytic reaction to produce the hydrogen and a way of sequestering at least some of the oxygen (in plain electrolysis of water) you could probably produce and trap enough of it in the balloon to get you to the desired height.

        Once at a high enough altitude, you could then, hopefully, use a more conventional rocket to carry the payload beyond the atmosphere. Aiming would be tricky, but if you suspend the rocket below the hydrogen-producing part and have a combination of barometer (altimeter) and accelerometer readings (maybe combined with a timer) you can use a bit of fuzzy logic to determine the best time to engage the rocket stage while it's more or less pointing in the right direction and still retaining at least some kinetic energy from the balloon contraption.

        Alternatively, I read that the most recent volcanic eruption in Iceland threw ash and other stuff up to a height of over 12 miles. That's still a long way to go to get to LEO and obviously reliant on the occurrence of a relatively rare event, not to mention needing to design a secondary rocket which could survive the initial lift-off, but at least it reduces the cost of the primary ballistic system to zero.

        Paper Hydrogen Balloons:

        1. Dave 62


          How about a hydrogen producing bacteria, wasn't there something on El Reg about that the other day?

          You could even carry out some kind of clever effect-of-space-on-living-stuff experiment like what seems so trendy these days.

          The real tough bit is getting the rocket to shoot in the right direction, as any PARIS fan will know, them balloons do tend to wobble about a bit, what with all the wind.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Surely the Discworld fans would find it easier just to push it over the rim?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Don't be silly we live on a sphere.

      We just drop it off Australia and it will fall down into orbit.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This quote from Arthur C Clarke comes to mind

    'an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong. '

  5. nigglec


    Use hydrogen instead of helium for your rockoon. Hydrogen is as cheap as chips. Highly explosive/flammable I grant you, but where is El Reg’s sense of risking all for the glory of science?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Flammable hydrogen

      When the balloon is at the right height, burn it out of the bottom as a proto-rocket to gain a little extra height.

      Rocket scientists will, I'm sure, confirm my genius any second now.

      1. mwk

        Right, let's speculate!

        You go up with the balloon, then want to use the gas for fuel. This will require several things. We need a balloon that can be deflated on command (plausible) , a controlled burn gaseous hydrogen rocket (difficult) and a main capsule that can control its orientation in the upper atmosphere.

        Initial thoughts would be to launch the balloon up to a certain height, then force deflate it, compressing the gas internally within the main capsule. During this stage the craft will be in freefall, so the gas needs to be compressed as quickly as possible to minimise altitude loss. Problem: Heat from compressing the gas could lead to explosion, need study to find out how likely this is.

        Once the hydrogen is compressed, we dump the balloon (with a parachute for recovery, balloons ain't cheap) align the main capsule and hit the burn button. This ignites our carefully released hydrogen fuel (some form of pulse rocket? Need to think about that.) and we burn for LEO. Do the rules specify what they're considering "space" to be? Anyway, once up, we release the satellite (Electronics chappies can probably do something with 20g) and hope it's somewhere vaguely stable for the next ~12 hours.

        Recovery of the main capsule is a non-trivial problem left to the reader.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          @mwk: compress the hydrogen slowly during ascent

          High altitude baloons tend to start on the ground partially inflated, to allow for expansion as the air pressure and temperature drops with altitude. This is likely to result in accelerated lift, as the baloon expands in the thinning atmosphere. If you want to use the hydrogen in the baloon as the next stage rocket fuel, it seems to make sense to remove the hydrogen from the baloon gradually, compressing this for fuel in order to allow constant baloon size and lift. By the time you are at maximum altitude for baloon lift, it seems to make sense to discard the rest of the hydrogen and the baloon, which won't be very much fuel, rather than lose altitude while compressing the rest. Once you are at say 10% of atmospheric pressure you have compressed 90% of the hydrogen if you assume constant baloon volume. This approach is assisted by the fact that the higher the altitude the lower the temperature, so the temperature increase resulting from compression of the fuel is less likely to result in hydrogen explosion.

          The problem with the rocket then is likely to be getting enough oxygen from the depleted atmosphere at 10% atmospheric pressure. Having to carry some or all of the oxygen up increases the cost and payload needed at rocket launch time.

        2. Stoneshop


          You'd want to check the availability of the other component required for burning: our old friend O2, aka oxygen. I gather there's not much of it to be had at the height rocoons split (taking PARIS' maximum altitude as a guideline).

          I doubt aiming for using the hydrogen for a bit of extra boost would be even marginally worthwhile..

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Paris Hilton

            I have no idea what I'm talking about here but just thinking out loud

            Any chance you could pack a battery, pump, logic/control system and compression tank into that weight limit to regulate the altitude and keep it at trade wind height?

            ...or maybe just leak it out (no pump, no tank) to an acceptable (if that's even possible, see below*) pressure once it gets to the proper height?

            Just thinking about the Japanese Ballon Bombs in WWII - from :

            * "A hydrogen balloon expands when warmed by the sunlight, and rises; then it contracts when cooled at night, and falls. The engineers devised a control system driven by an altimeter to discard ballast. When the balloon descended below 9 km (30,000 ft), it electrically fired a charge to cut loose sandbags. The sandbags were carried on a cast-aluminium four-spoked wheel and discarded two at a time to keep the wheel balanced.[3]

            Similarly, when the balloon rose above about 11.6 km (38,000 ft), the altimeter activated a valve to vent hydrogen. The hydrogen was also vented if the balloon's pressure reached a critical level.[3]"

            1. Stoneshop

              @AC 06:48

              There's no need to regulate altitude; you want the balloon to go as high as it can without bursting, and that last bit can be delayed by venting gas as the balloon expands. At some point the buoyancy will become neutral, which is when you want to fire the rocket.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Helium too pricey?

    ... then use hydrogen instead and shoot for the non-reusable category surely? Assuming you would need about 40(?) moles of hydrogen (half a cubic metre at stp), that would require a bit over 2.5kWh of electricity to generate. I guess you would collect the gas directly in the balloon somehow to save costs which would mean pressurising the vessel you do the electrolysis in slightly. If you could sustain 100W it would be filled in about 4 days, assuming you don't loose too much gas by leakage through the balloon skin.

    So what's wrong with that then?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Slight correction

      ~20 moles ~= 0.5 m3

    2. breakfast Silver badge

      I was thinking this too

      It's not like you benefit from lack of flammability in Helium given that you have a rocket strapped to it. Perhaps there would be a way to harness the Hydrogen as extra fuel or blow the balloon up to provide an initial boost to the rocket. In fact it would be fair to say that there is NO WAY this could POSSIBLY go wrong.

  7. Peter Dawe



    Fill balloon with cheaper and more buoyant Hydrogen, not helium, then use the hydrogen to power a LASER to remotely heat the rocket propellant.

    Note at high altitudes we get rid of defocusing atmosphere and attenuation of LASER

    BTW as the balloon is reusable the cost is zero according to your reported rules.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    titles smittles

    Just pay an astronaut friend £10 (we all have one surely) to take a small pod in his pocket on his next mission. Rinse and repeat nine times. Request nice cheque :)

    1. Blofeld's Cat
      Thumb Up

      I like this approach

      I am reminded of the confuscated C competition that had a category for "most imaginative breach of the rules" or similar.

      It was won by including "CON:"

      1. Captain TickTock


        fixed it for you.

    2. Stoneshop
      Thumb Up

      @Jim Booth

      Build a Sub-Etha Sense-O-Matic, aka "electronic thumb", and put it, with the actual satellite, a slingshot and a cardboard sign saying "LEO" at the Baikonur Cosmodrome entrance gate

  9. Ralthor

    We dont need no.....

    As the only cost that needs to be taken into account is the launch vehicle.....

    ... or other magentically accelerated launch device. The expensive part stays here. :)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Eh ?

      For a launch loop to be economically viable it would require customers with sufficiently large payload launch requirements.

      Lofstrom estimates that an initial loop costing roughly $10 billion

  10. Andus McCoatover

    Hang on a mo'

    Surrey University springs suddenly to mind..

    (Of course, the screws lost on the last ISS cakewalk don't count, natch...)

  11. Marvin the Martian

    Social engineering is the way forward.

    Given the budget & realism restraints, and with a tenous link to the IT context, I guess social engineering is the most probable path to success.

    You know, make small package of appropriately camouflaged material, sneak into an ESA/NASA cleanroom (or the Chinese, Indian or Russian equivalents) and stick it in a bigger satellite that has an appropriate flight plan.

    Sadly the prize money will be eaten for breakfast by the ensuing lawyering.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wonder?

    If a number of hydrogen balloons where used, if the hydrogen in those balloons could be used to push the vehicle a little further, before releasing the rocket.

  13. Anonymous Coward

    I bought two meteo balloons for €5

    They were KAYSAM 300 gramme helium balloon, (a single one ascends at about 320 metres per minute to deflate at around 10 millibar atmospheric pressure or 25 kilometres altitude). If everything else is equally sourced from the ham-radio fleamarket route then you could emulate the initial Galileo frequency claim satellite which seemed to be an 'iPod fused with a Nokia Phone' rather than space qualified components.

    I think I WOULD like to wear a tin-hat should large numbers of N-prize attempts start to be made!

  14. TeeCee Gold badge

    Easy one.

    Atlatl (throwing stick). Cost is immaterial as it's a reusable component.

    Pay Chuck Norris 990 pounds a time to sling satellites into orbit with it.

    9.99 per launch for fuel and sundry consumables (beer and crisps).

    There are probably other ways of doing this, but I feel that a solution using Chuck Norris and beer has a simple elegance that makes it stand out.

  15. Nigel 11

    Rockoon - Helium??

    Why expensive helium?

    Hydrogen is much cheaper. Given that the cargo is potentially explosive anyway, the balloon fairly small and probably destined for one-off use, surely hydrogen.

    For a micro-satellite, launch at high altitude (as high as possible) has huge advantages. Fuel scales as size cubed, whereas air drag scales as size squared, so the smaller the rocket, the more it's going to lose to drag and the greater the advantage of launching with most of the atmosphere beneath it.

  16. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Not obviously impossible

    Low Earth orbit is around 10km/s which for a 10g payload is only a megajoule of energy, so at current prices you could do it for well under a pound.

    However, I think most of the rockets that have made it into space have delivered a payload two or three orders of magnitude smaller than the delivery vehicle. On the face of it then, your energy costs alone are going to blow the budget even if the whole of the rest of the system is re-usable.

    So we can expect that a winning entry will have to recover some of this energy, perhaps by sticking a large windmill out of its window on re-entry.

  17. Anonymous Coward


    If they can fake going to the moon, this would be even easier.

    Cost to flood social media sites with reports of success? All but zero.

    Get yourself some video with a bit of CGI, some nice "artists interpretations" and lots of graphs. Cut with sound bites from "experts" played over background shots of Universities.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      Sounds sorted to me.

  18. Paul_Murphy

    Multi-stage catapults

    One HUGE catapult on the ground shoots a bundle of ever-smaller catapults into the sky - each one is more massive than it's payload.

    Won't work I'm sure, but it'll be fun to watch.

    There is also the ground-based laser launch systems, which might be interesting,


    1. Yesnomaybe


      I was thinking along those lines. I would use a hydrogen baloon, to lift a rocket as high as it would go. Sticking out of the nose of the rocket, there would be a high-velocity rifle. The rifle would fire as the rocket reaches max height. Now, I haven't decided yet, if the projectile needs to be another, much smaller barrel, I should probably do some tests or calculations or something. Or not.

  19. Ironclad


    Surely ballocket is a better portmanteau than rockoon?

    1. Mike Flugennock

      re: portmanteau

      "Ballocket"? As in "bollocks"?

    2. M Gale
      Thumb Up

      Ballockets to that!

      See title.

  20. The Indomitable Gall

    Is the cost of reaching the launch site included...?

    Cos I'm thinking of launching an expedition to Everest, and I've got a bit of luggage space....

  21. Captain TickTock

    Balanced Competition

    One prize to clear orbiting space junk


    one to add more.

  22. fLaMePrOoF

    As the rules don't specifically state...

    I wonder how much it would cost to include a 9.99 gm payload on the cheapest current commercial satelite delivery programme..?

    Maybe with mates-rates...

  23. Peter Dawe

    Can someone do the sums please, re energy cost

    Ken or someone

    So 1 MegaJoule to get 10g to 10km/s for orbit, how much to potential energy is needed to get to a viable orbit height?

    Then subtract 10,000m or whatever the maximum feasible balloon height and velocity of equator..

    How much energy now?

    Now add the mass of the propellant needed...

    My physcs is too rust to do it myself

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      chuffing loads

      1Mj to get the 10g up to speed, several hundred more to get the mass of the launcher up to speed, like several kilos of fuel. It's probably enough to make the advantage of setting off from a balloon not really worthwhile.

      (1Mj is the energy of a car at 100mph at a rough guess.)

      1. Chris Miller

        Close, but no cigar

        1MJ ~ 80mph for a 1500kg family saloon.

    2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Doing the sums

      "So 1 MegaJoule to get 10g to 10km/s for orbit, how much to potential energy is needed to get to a viable orbit height?"

      Bugger all. Low Earth orbit is "of the order of" 100km, so "mgh" is 0.01*9.81*10^5 which comes out at 10kJ or so, so it is about two orders of magnitude less than the kinetic energy for maintaining orbit once you are up there.

      This means that all the suggestions about starting from Mt Everest or a balloon are just pissing into a category five hurricane. Height is not the problem here. The problem is the truly awsome speeds you need to achieve. To put it into perspective, remember that once you've attained the necessary speed, actually coming back down to Earth without burning yourself to a cinder in the process *purely from atmospheric friction* is a significant engineering task in its own right.

      Regarding one of the other suggestions from commenters, I think blasting something up the arse with a high-power laser *has* been seriously considered as a launch system for lightweight payloads. Nothing came of it though.

      1. Stoneshop

        @Ken Hagan

        You do gain from launching from a balloon, or Everest, as you don't need to push your craft through those first n kilometers of atmosphere, where it's at its densest. And while you do have to have a significant booster to accelerate your payload to the required LEO velocity, it doesn't have to be even larger to lift itself those initial kilometers as well.

        There's a reason why it's being done.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


          Quite true. Atmospheric pressure halves for every 5600m altitude rise.

          The big win (according to various people who've looked at this) is that the simple way to increase rocket thrust is to slap a bigger nozzle on the end.

          However the rule of thumb is that once the expansion ratio makes the exhaust pressure < 40% of the *outside* pressure you start to get flow separation which is *very* bad.

          This becomes even more important if you're using a pressure fed engine, whose chamber pressure is not going to be that high to begin with EG 150psi feeding a 20:1 expansion ratio already gets you down to the danger are at sea level. (one of the big reasons for the SSME running about 2200psi is to allow it to exhaust to a 77:1 nozzle. In principle it *could* be higher but I think any bigger and they'd be outside the protective shadow of the engine pods)

          One of the poeple who looked at this concluded that large kites (sort of giant parawing parachutes) were a viable *reusable* way to reach quite high altitudes (albeit *very* slowly).

  24. Peter Dawe

    FYI Balloon height max,9171,804911,00.html

    An unmanned "sounding balloon" has risen to 140000 feet (26½-miles), breaking the altitude record for any man-made object except rockets.

  25. Peter Dawe

    More data for sums

    "Low-Earth orbit – As the name implies, this is the lowest altitude a spacecraft must achieve to in order to orbit the Earth. This is around 520 km altitude and spacecraft in these orbits circle the Earth once every ninety minutes or so. " - ESA

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Low Earth Orbit

      Ah, I'd better revise upwards the "100km" figure that I used a minute ago, then. :)

      BTW, who the hell down-voted this?

      1. Jolyon


        There's weird, unexplained downvotes all the way through this (pretty decent) thread.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Peter Dawe

      "This is around 520 km altitude and spacecraft in these orbits circle the Earth once every ninety minutes or so."

      Total BS. The Shuttle orbits roughly around 90 mins at c180Km (IE 100 nautical miles).

      The orbit is stable over a time period of at least weeks. That altitude should be stable over a period of millenia.

  26. Tim Worstal

    Laser based

    As above.

    All of the expensive kit stays on the ground. Costs of actual launch are the 10 grammes plus 'leccie.

    Last I saw they'd managed to make this work up to as much as 300 feet. Just a matter of refining the engineering then, for we've got the technology proof......

  27. James Hughes 1

    Carmack Prize

    You could always try for the Carmack prize instead. From John Carmack of Doom, Quake and Armadillo aerospace fame. $10k for a rocket to over 100kft (and it must do 100kft under its propulsion - ie from point of ignition, so Rockoons no help).

    Even that is very difficult, as no-one has claimed it yet.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Quite easy, actually?

      Speak to the Rocketry people at the Waltham Abbey Gunpowder mills. Apparently the former occupant of the site allowed them to keep a large quantity of equipment for museum pieces.

      One staff member there was obviously a former scientist from the UK space program, because he knew WAYYY too much about it, and rocket propulsion in general. He reckoned that they had all of the equipment required to build more casings, fuel etc for the former program and the knowledge to use it.

      Do you think that using a rocket from a former government program would get you disqualified?

      1. Anomalous Cowturd

        +1 for Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Mills...

        I think I met him too!

        Visited a couple of years ago on one of their re-enactment days, and had a very interesting half hour chat with probably the same ex-boffin. Absolutely fascinating, and well worth a visit.

        It IS rocket science, but not as we know it Jim.

  28. Anonymous Coward

    Kanzius effect?

    AKA the "burning saltwater" method, could be adapted into a rocket.

    Launch it from a balloon, but the main advantage is that all the chemicals used are non toxic, so would not be restricted by the 18xx Explosives Act in the UK.

    You would still need to abide by the relevant safety rules and notifications such as NOTAM (same as any weather balloon) but other than that the paperwork is a LOT less hassle than you might think.

    Idea *2, a solar powered Lifter based system (aka ionocraft) to get from near space to LEO, you would need to have a working gas such as argon but this is relatively simple.

    Maybe manufacture the fuel on the way, using solar energy to fill up a small chamber?

    AC,but we are Anonymous, we are legion :-)

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    Why has nobody mentioned a tethered platform using the Biefield-Brown effect? You'd need a damnably long cable, but that's the most expensive bit. Or perhaps check out one of the many lifter projects?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Biefield-Brown would be difficult

      given that it doesn't give enough thrust to lift the weight of the cable.

      Also, it needs air to function so wouldn't work in space.

      Also, the thrust given out would take approximately.... let's just say infinity and add a few more 000s on the end... years to get even a small payload up to speed- and at 10km/s you're looking at one seriously long extension cable!

      Given a zero-buoyancy (say, with hydrogen balloons tied to it every meter or two) cable capable of providing the very high powers required to get meaningful thrust out of such a craft, you could maybe reach a straight-up altitude probably lower than a balloon.

    2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Obvious

      Probably because the closing date for applications is 2012.

      A long wire is almost certainly how it *will* be done, and the energy costs of that system will be a pittance of what rockets require, but the cable isn't quite ready yet. Give it another few decades.

  30. XMAN

    Quadcopter + helium

    Couldn't you fill a weather balloon up with helium and attach a quad copter? Then have the quadcopter kick in when the balloon bursts to push it just that little bit higher, so it's in an orbit that wont fall back to earth?

    The quad copter IS the satellite.

    1. Stoneshop


      a) the quadcopter will be a tad heavier than the stipulated maximum of 19.99 g

      b) at the height the balloon gives up, air density will not quite be sufficient for the copter to do anything worthwhile with regards to gaining altitude.

      In other words, you're an idiot.

      1. XMAN


        Wow, remind me to never voice an idea when you're around.

        1. Stoneshop


          Better remember to think through how feasible your idea is against the laws of physics.

          I'll be happy to remind you of that should you forget.

  31. Matthew 35

    How about

    email design to fabber on ISS, have them print it and eject it.

  32. lawndart


    I think a lot of commenters have failed to spot the difference between being in space and being in orbit. Achieving the feat of launching an object to an altitude that is considered space does not put it into an orbit around the Earth. For this you need vast quantities of horizontal velocity, 17,000 mph for an object at an altitude 250 miles up. So if you do a balloon launch you have to find a way to accelerate your satellite up to speed with considerable alacrity because once released it will start to descend at 9.81m/s-1.

    1. Jonathan Richards 1

      Acceleration due to gravity

      Actually, it will *accelerate* downwards at 9.81 metres per second *per second*, until it hits terminal velocity. Or it would at sea level. At 250 miles up _g_ will be a little less, but not much.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Thumb Up


      "I think a lot of commenters have failed to spot the difference between being in space and being in orbit. "

      Good point. sounding rockets have achieved 1000km altitudes with a descent time of 15-30 minutes. By any definition this is "Space" and they have tested space based telescopes and various other kit.

      Before coming down a few Km from where they were launched. They're not even very big.

      But nowhere near orbital velocity.

  33. Robert E A Harvey

    the rules

    So, we could spend 10 billion on an inductive rail gun, and fire a 15g bullet into orbit, and only the cost of the electricity would have to come out of the thousand quid? am I right?

    So, we spend another 10 billion on solar cells, charge up some batteries, do the launch. Cost of launch = 0?

    flippancy aside, I do wonder if an induction gun might be the best approach? I like the passive radar reflector solution to proof, as well. Proof would be easier if we fired into a retrograde or anti-polar orbit, as nothing else would be going in that direction.

    1. annodomini2


      Mach 30 at sea level whatever you launch will vaporise due to friction with the air.

  34. Torben Mogensen

    Laser launch

    This does indeed look like the most likely approach, but tracking the vehicle with the laser gets exceedingly difficult with both distance and speed, so I can't see this as being realistic in little over a year.

    An alternative could be to use several fixed beams to keep the vehicle automatically centred: Let us say that the vehicle is a sphere and you have 3-4 parallel beams that hit the sphere close to the edge of the projected image. If the sphere moves off centre, the two other beams will push it back. A risk is that oscillations will become too high, so the sphere slips out of the beams.

    Another problem is that the ascent would have to be nearly vertical for this to work, so you wouldn't get the required horizontal velocity to gain orbit. Maybe you can get a non-vertical trajectory if the "bottom" beams are stronger than the top beams.

  35. Pat 4


    Battery operated twin prop first stage lift vehicle that will parachute back down.

    Prop shaft holding second stage rocket.

    How high could a battery powered twin prop lifter go?

    1. Stoneshop

      @Pat 4

      >How high could a battery powered twin prop lifter go?

      Not even remotely as high as a balloon.

    2. M Gale

      How high could a prop lifter go

      Not as high as a balloon. The props tend to run out of enough air to push a long while before the hydrogen runs out of bouyancy. That and other factors such as the weight of the batteries, motors, and everything else.

  36. Dick Pountain


    The only way to meet these cost limits is to employ a £4.99 scheduled Ryanair flight as the first stage. A rocket vehicle would then be launched by flushing it down one of the toilets (before ignition of course, which would set off the smoke alarm). The challenge is to persuade the pilot to fly inverted for several minutes during the launch procedure - but offering him the balance of £994 in readies might work if performed by a messenger with sufficient charisma, like Paris.

    1. Stoneshop

      @Dick Pountain

      The only problem being that AFAIK plane toilets don't flush outboard, but maybe Ryanair does, as an interim cost-saving measure before they're fully phased out (no waste reservoir and waste pump, pressure difference does the job). Which means you have to drill a hole through the skin anyway, and if you do that through the normally-up bit you don't have to inconvenience the other passengers (I mean, even more than they're already flying standing up).

      I'd strap the rocket launcher to the outside, the tail would be best as that's already pointing up, and run the ignition wires through the door.

      1. Dick Pountain


        Tesla, Barnes-Wallis and von Braun would have scoffed at such pettifogging details...

    2. Anonymous Coward

      You will blow your budget ...

      ... on what Ryan Air charges to use the bog.

  37. Magnus_Pym

    You don't have to burn stuff...

    ... to make a rocket. Or at least a reaction motor.

    The balloon carries the payload up to a specified height then the gas is released in a controlled manner vertically downwards. It might be possible to do this in stages where a large, strong balloon carries the craft passed all the nasty weather effects then a lighter much flimsier balloon can be inflated to carry on a bit further. If this second balloon where coloured black the heating effect of the sun might further reduce the density of the gas and add to its effectiveness.

  38. Roger Jenkins


    If I read correctly, ground support isn't costed in. So, how about a nice rail gun to shoot the projectile high and fast, then a little rocket for the last bit.

    The railgun carriage would be recoverable, not so sure about the little rocket though.

  39. Magnus_Pym

    Rail gun + lightning

    A balloon a hundred metres or so up, tethered to the earth by a conductive cable, wet string might be enough. A flat foil element at the top of the balloon attracts the lightning. The payload of the balloon is a railgun one pole of which is connected to the attractor and the other pole to the earthed cable. Lightning strikes and the projectile is fired vertically through the balloon destroying everything.

    I don't know if it would put anything in orbit but I'd still like to see it happen.

  40. Nick Ryan Silver badge


    Balloon - not really a bad plan at all, as long as you can control the ceiling height properly. If these were filled with hydrogen (who *really* cares about explosions / leakage?) Just fill them quick and let them go and run like hell just in case. Or as a safety measure, have a lot of Oxygen at hand, after all, what could go wrong - the H would combine with the O and you'll just get wet and no explosion. There, sorted! :)

    Just hang a smallish chemical rocket off it, fit a couple of stabilisers to it which will help to initially stablise the flight even at the height of the weather balloon and send it roughly upwards. At a reasonable angle you shouldn't need too long a burn to clear the atmosphere - after all the majority and hardest part of the launch distance has already been covered and you didn't need the rocket to expend valuable and heavy fuel reaching it.

    Once in orbit (however you define that), have the rocket signal broadcast the insertion point (which will make the payload easier to track) and monitor the payload as it goes...

    Simples. What could possibly go wrong :)

  41. Get the puck outa here

    With Gerald Bull's Supergun

    19.99g would be a piece of piss. If anybody (other than Saddam Hussein) had put a tiny percentage of the money wasted on the space shuttle program into developing Bull's HARP (not HAARP), we'd be popping GPS and comsats into space for peanuts.

  42. Matthew 18

    i won!!!

    i just bribed one of the last shuttle astronauts £500 to carry a 15g pen into orbit

  43. gee

    red tape

    afaik its illegal to place a satellite in orbit w'out insurance. Min qoute: £100k.

    which leaves me a tad disheartened.

  44. Adam Cherrett

    Probably cheating, but...

    Geostationary orbit at a height of 1" above table level should be maintainable for 9 days. Magnetic levitation would probably be the way to go.

    Original choice of icon was based on a poor quality innuendo involving keeping something up for over a week - so I think I deserve the coat instead.

  45. Anonymous Coward

    Why Helium

    Oi! El Reg PARIS types in the Special Projects Bureau types i got to ask why Helium? Its not as if your carrying people and a rocket and fuel inst exactly less risky than Hydrogen. Seems like your risks aren't likely to increase much (proportionately) just because of some fiery Hydrogen.

    Hydrogen is also cheap, rockoons for the win!

  46. annodomini2


    Seriously how much weight could the PARIS balloon lift if it was filled with hydrogen?

    I know about altitude and orbital velocity

  47. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    No one has mentioned the obvious yet.

    Coat it with Cavorite :-)

    Mines the one floating up to the ISS.

  48. CmdrX3

    I know....

    Call the Top Gear crew. They could resurrect their Robin Reliant Shuttle Orbiter project and it'll only cost 10 an' 6.

  49. Captain DaFt

    My proposal

    Any artillery experts out there want to calculate the length of a barrel with a 3 centimeter bore that uses standard smokeless powder to accelerate a 19 gram projectile to the desired orbit?

    just find a hillside with suitable length, angle, and bearing, then:

    A. Lay out the barrel (made of gas pipe?) Abso-fucking-lutely straight, stake it down good!

    B. Load projectile, and carefully measured powder charge,

    C. Duck down in bunker and push ignition button, then:

    D. If by some miracle* it worked first try, check barrel alignment and repeat.

    The projectile would be a casing made of thin stainless steel, with a tiny transmitter embedded inside with thermal resin to absorb some of the heat of launch, designed to broadcast a simple message over and over ("I'm In space!" would be a good, meme conscious one.), using the case as an antennae.

    * If it doesn't work, post the footage on Youtube.

    The icon shows worst (most likely) case scenario.

  50. Anonymous Coward

    Please don't do this.

    After everyone loses interest, the thing will become a disaster waiting to happen. A mass of even a few grams accelerated to stable orbit velocities is likely to wreck a very expensive satellite if it hits it the wrong way. There's already more than enough crap up there without you adding more

    1. M Gale

      A very low orbit..

      ..would probably only last a few days anyway. The ISS scrapes the top of the atmosphere and is being continually re-boosted. If it wasn't, you'd have flaming debris covering large portions of the Earth in a matter of weeks.

      At lower altitudes, you'd probably be pushing it just to go around the requisite 9 times, and the only satellites at that altitude aren't lasting very long anyway. Also, a little reference of just how high the ISS and various other satellites have gone:

      If you can get a 19.9g weight even as high as Sputnik for under a grand, I'd be amazed.

  51. Grumpy Old Fart

    Cost or budget?

    1. Borrow cash to build v. expensive rocketry to take v. small package to orbit

    2. Insure for more than it's worth for accidental fire damage

    3. Accidentally light touch paper stand back

    4. Claim insurance and pay back loan

    5. Buy (((insurance claim - premium) - loan) + 998.99) quid's worth of beer

    6. Drink

    7. Tip barpersonages

    8. Win!

    and then spend the proceeds on aspirin before repeating the same procedure to claim the other prize.

  52. Anonymous Coward

    Expanding gas at altitude

    Won't the ballon pop itself at high altitude as the helium expands?

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: Expanding gas at altitude

      Yes it will. Here's our Vulture 1 aircraft release when the PARIS balloon burst at a tad under 90,000ft:

      There's an upper limit on balloons, depending on the size of balloon and the amount of helium you stick in it at ground level.

      1. M Gale

        Pressure vent?

        Just an idea. Have the balloon vent gas when internal vs external pressure reaches a critical point. Anything to squeeze a few extra thousand feet before ignition. Launch when the device has definitely reached its ceiling, if you can detect that from the ground. Emergency launch and go for broke if you can detect the balloon popping with on-board systems.

        Likelihood of Team PARIS forming an N-Prize entrant? None or merely slim?

        1. Adam Foxton

          Surely the pressure in a balloon

          is always constant (relative to the surrounding air)? It's a thin membrane of rubber, so it'll be compressing the gas a little bit but will maintain a pretty constant offset from the external environment. Same idea as compensators on underwater hydraulics- a simple sprung diaphragm keeps the pressure in the hydraulic system a few psi higher than the outside environment to prevent water ingress. The absolute pressure rises with depth, but the relative pressure remains the same.

          In any case, venting gas would do no good- you'd drop the volume of gas in the balloon, so dropping the volume of air displaced, so dropping the buoyancy that the balloon produced.

  53. Andy D 1

    @ Capt Daft

    Long barrels are only an advantage for as long as the propellant is burning (not long). After this they just slow the projectile down with the extra friction.

    Oh and gas pipe? A moderate rifle charge can produce 60,000 psi, imagine what that would do to gas pipe.

  54. GrantB

    Captain DaFt is closest I think

    Total cost of the gun is not counted, (nor the propellant)? so only the cost of the projectile which could just about be a nicely machined, steel or carbon fibre can with solid state sensors/transmitters inside.

    If the barrel is long enough, then the acceleration does not have to be that crushing either; you don't have to hit the same sort of g-forces that relatively cheap smart bullets/shells hit every day.

    According to Wiki (I know!), x25 smart shells will cost down to $35 each.

    Nice thing about the space gun idea is that it has already been partially done. The HARP project back in the 1960's threw 180Kg projectiles to 180km & about 50% of delta-v, all using a 40m barrel which was apparently scrapped battleship cannons.

    Not sure of the maths, but if the target project (minus sabot) was a 20g carbon fibre rod, rather than 180KG of steel, then the height and delta-V would be seriously increased.

    Would not be cheap to build the launcher (though within Top Gears budget), but I suspect modern CAM machining could carve out some very precise high quality steel tubing say 20cm diameter, with 10m+ lengths. Could even use the multiple gas cannon inputs idea (precisely timed gas cannons branching off and feeding into the main barrel - aka worlds biggest potatoe gun) to accelerate the projectile at say 10-20g over maybe 100m. A robust sold-propellant rocket might survive the lauch to form the second stage (assuming first stage is a sabot that is quickly discarded). Have the 20g orbiter as the 3rd stage.

    Nice thing about the idea, is that once the barrel and cannon propellant are built, then the launch can be repeated over and over again (at least until neighbours/police/miltary/mossad shut you down), with different sabots, projectiles etc.

    The rocket/ballon idea is effectively a one shot deal; if the rocket or release mechanism freezes then you lose the balloon, probably the rocket and you lose the money. Even if it works; repeating the process is a one off thing. Once the BFG is built and aimed into space, then you can wash and repeat until the barrel is worn through.

    1. James Hughes 1


      The velocity of the projectile as it leave the barrel would either vapourise the projectile, or, if that didn't happen, air drag would reduce the velocity so rapidly that it wouldn't make it in to orbit.

  55. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How the shuttle does it

    Getting up is not the problem, building up speed is.

  56. JC 2

    Off By An Order Of Magnitude Everywhere

    Make the payload 10X the weight limit currently imposed, 10X the launch cost, and 10X the prize, THEN it becomes remotely plausible to develop this in 10X the time period with a team and facilities whose resources and time itself is worth 10X the prize value over the development period.

    ... otherwise the Chuck Norris roundhouse-kick-into-orbit idea is the only way.

    1. James Hughes 1

      @JC 2

      unless you are John Carmack (are you?), then perhaps looking up some of the teams who are currently beavering away on this - and there are quite a few - might be a good idea before gobbing off?

      Plenty of project team websites to peruse, please note, this prize has been on offer for well over a year already, so there is quite a bit of progress in the various areas.

      1. JC 2

        @ James Hughes 1

        We shall see! I've already made my prediction. A bunch of halfway, some even quite intelligent guys with enough ego to think anything is possible, doesn't really make that true given _today's_ technology.

        Perhaps an alien race will beam down some tech for them to use, I suppose *anything* IS possible given enough time, money, and a higher weight limit... which is what I wrote about.

  57. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    You might start by finding out what the *lowest* Earth orbit that can last 9 orbits would be.

    BTW The peak altitude of the Earth's atmosphere can change x10 depending on season and time of day.

    For those who like the big gun route consider the V3 multi chamber design rather than the Bull HARP approach. In *theory* the V3 could be done today with a series of those gas powered mole killers (properly triggered) El Reg featured a while back. Finding a way to do a trailing seal behind the projectile might be quite a good idea..

    Proving you've done it *is* part of the prize. The US navy failed to do this with their NOTSNIK flights in the late 50's, which *might* be the smallest payload (c1.1Lb) launched by the smallest rocket ever (a 3 stage solid carried on a fighter at cM1.05). Most people will think "Radio beacon," but how about corner cube reflector picking up a ground laser?

    BIS "Spaceflight" published a 4 stage solid design in around 1967-8. IIRC moslty black powder and fibre glass. Solids could do it *provided* most of the work was done by the team. High Power Rocketry re-loads are AFAIK designed *not* to allow you to make orbit, but some creative re-purposing might get round that.

    For liquid systems consider that the humble drinks can weighs 11g but carries c319g of fluid and is pressurised to c 90psi, yet cat be stacked (unpressurised but *fully* loaded) to a height of 10 cans.

    Making use of those facts is left as an exercise to the reader.

    For those who want to get into serious rocket engineering you're looking at pumped systems with low pressure tanks. or

    Alternatively the "pistonless" pump uses high pressure gas indirectly to keep the tank mass low and confine the high pressure pumping bit to small chambers.

    You're going to need to be pretty handy with tools and AFAIK both designs are patented but it might people some ideas, and neither has gone to orbit *yet*.

    As most people don't have experience in handling chemical weapons level compounds something less lethal, like Hydrogen Peroxide/LOX with Liquid fuels (paraffin, lamp oil) or something like LPG or Butane would be a better choice. IRFNA is hypergolic with lots of stuff but is nearly as nasty to handle as the amines and NTO.

    The UK has a mainland rocket and missile test site at Cardogan bay in Wales operated by Qintiiq. They even have a large barge you can launch off. Weather they will let you play with their toys for free is another matter. Otherwise it's a trip to the Hebrides, but I think they own that one as well.


    Most of this stuff has legal restrictions and licenses. it's also somewhat dangerous so stand *well* back, preferably behind a nice thick concrete wall. Keep the frontispiece of John Clarke's book "Ignition" *firmly* in mind at all times. The difference between success and failure can be quite impressive. Long term rocket engineers tend to ask people to speak up a lot.

    NB. Should you a) Not kill yourself and b) Succeed in placing a package in orbit (*and* detecting it's there) you have...

    Conducted an unannounced, unauthorised (but then again possibly undetected) *orbital* launch from the UK mainland, which has *never* been done before.

    Expect HMG to express *extreme* twitchiness at such behavior, in the form of arrest warrants, search warrants (probably with dogs) and possible armed response. Competent legal representation is recommended, along with avoiding any bulky looking clothing and looking like an electrician from Latin America.

    Good luck, keep your organ donor paperwork handy at all times JIC and the above comments are made for information purposes only.

  58. Martin Budden Silver badge

    a gun/cannon won't work!

    Everyone suggesting a gun/cannon is forgetting one imortant thing: all orbits are elliptical*. This means a ballistic projectile MUST come back down to earth before it has gone halfway round the world. This is a lot less than nine orbits.

    *yes a perfect circle is also an ellipse, just one with both nodes in the same place.

  59. GrantB

    people thinking a gun won't work

    Martin Budden - trajectory is not a problem - its just a matter of hitting delta-v. if you have enough speed (~Mach 25), then you orbit. If you boosted an ICBM's velocity, (which are designed to come down in halfway around the work), then they would enter LEO - which would decay to the point that they would come down sometime.

    James Hughes - "The velocity of the projectile as it leave the barrel would either vapourise the projectile, or, if that didn't happen, air drag would reduce the velocity so rapidly that it wouldn't make it in to orbit".

    Except Gerald Bull dealt with these issues back in the 60's, with the HARP project. You can deal with in a number of ways (including ablating the nose cone), but you are through the thickest part of the atmosphere very quickly - you though away most of the casing (the sabot) and use a rocket after that. It does put constraints on how robust the projectile is of course.. but then the explosive launch and high G's also does that.

    Andy D 1 - Gun barrels are relatively light and deal that PSI - being perfectly circular helps. The IRAQ super gun and German V3 both had non-traditional cannon barrels - you just need very strong machined piping .. and I don't know what PSI a space cannon would run to but believe that they don't go higher than something like a naval cannon - they instead go for long barrel lengths to accelerate the projectile slower.

    John Smith 19 - has some good input. As I mentioned, multiple gas fired tubes leading into the barrel branching style (as with the V3 or as I think of it, a monster potato gun) would one way to accelerate the projectile over the entire length of the barrel rather than one charge. be a machining nightmare (to make strong and precise). Seals, deals with shock waves, and a number of other issues; but you only have to solve the problems by trial and error in a scaled down version; if you build a single rocket, then when something goes wrong (and it will) then you have to start again.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      A couple of notes on Gerald Bull.

      While his HARP project got plenty of altitude they had limited orbital velocity, as the shots were for profiling the high atmosphere.

      People forget that Bull's ultimate aim was a shell using 3-4 solid propellant stage in *addition* to the gun charge, mostly to add velocity but I would expect at least 1 to circularise the orbit at the top of the shell's travel. Like the 3rd stage of Black Arrow (waxwing) they were a *critical* part of making it work at all, *not* an incidental part of it.

      AFAIK Bull *never* made orbit. That's not to say that if adequately funded it would not have worked and I'm unaware of any reports in the open literature on actual firings of the Saddam Hussein gun.

      On a general point. High g electronics is a *lot* simpler today due to the massive improvements in integration. *Powering* them remains tricky. I think capacitors have an edge. AFAIK military systems (US navy GPS guided shells) favor thermal batteries. Try getting hold of one of these puppies. I've heard of some AAM's using an inertial generator of a magnetic rod inside a solenoid. The rod is free floating and the missile pulls the coil along. Higher speed, higher power. Pure EM theory. A magnet inside a weighted ball (to keep it orientated in a particular direction) whizzing round a circular pipe with the solenoid wrapped round it in the outside casing should generate a fair bit of power.

      Actuators remain difficult. They have to be built ruggedly to survive. Explosively actuated devices are *expensive*. Note very small devices survive high g better. Think hard drives hitting floors from 1m up. c20 000g.

      Bull had a touch of the Bond villain about him (so does Elon Musk, specifically Klaus Maria Brandauer in Never Say Never Again). Frank Langella in the Doomsday Gun is an entertaining portrayal of him, although I've no idea how accurate it is.

      He seemed like someone born 50-60 years too late. The last of the long range gunmen, better suited to walking the assembly halls of Krupp.

  60. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Oops. The point that makes most of my comments obsolete.

    The *key* restriction.

    It's *single* stage to orbit.

    That raises the game *considerably*.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      However for those who still want to play.

      This was a serious design put together by people for whom this is their day job.

      The chamber pressure is er "Sporty" and personally I'd think not using LO2 would be a problem but I think you'd get the propellants all up for <£1000. It was designed to be built to a human scale (no micro manipulators, parts you can handle and replace with your bare hands).

      A general note. Lowering ascent losses can make a *big* difference in how much propellant you need to carry. Do it carefully. Skylon's delta V is c9500m/s and that's *high*. 9100m/s is good. Anything < 9000 m/s is excellent.

  61. ennui

    The technology of the Flying Saucer can do that.

    The technology of the Flying Saucer which I discovered and patented, can do that.

    These spheres under a Saucer are the Monopole HV Generators, used as Propulsion Units,

    They can lift a 10 or 100 ton vehicle off the ground and beyond..

    L1000 is not too much money. I would have to use a rocket body and the Propulsion Unit underneath, The electronics would have to be powered by a battery that can stand the low temperatures. Although a Flying Saucer taps energy out of the aether, I would not give that secret away.

    The technology was offered to Nasa already in 1980 and rejected by the Propulsion Engineers, as they would become obsolete. The Shuttles would have been flown very economically for many years all over our space. Look at One Terminal Capacitor.

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