A balloon system capable of launching small satellites into orbit will be launched from Shetland this week, marking the UK’s first commercial spaceflight-related activity.
The stratospheric balloon system, known as rockoon, has been developed by B2Space. The Bristol-based company is one of the first to partner with the Shetland Space Centre (SSC).
Weather-permitting, the test launch is scheduled to take place at Baltasound Airport in Unst on Sunday 14th July. B2Space and the Shetland Space Centre are working closely with the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of the project.
Valentin Canales, co-founder of B2Space, commented: “This is very exciting, both for ourselves and for Shetland Space Centre. We will be sending a smaller version of the balloon that we will eventually use up to a height of around 37km, carrying a complete set of instruments, trackers and control boards, as well as beaming back live images from an on-board camera.”
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Canales said the purpose of the test flight will be to confirm the company’s ability to operate from Shetland, stating: “We believe it will support our case for a permanent base in Shetland, not only for launches to orbit, but for performing ‘near space operations’, such as testing satellite components in conditions similar to the ones faced in orbit.”
The project, which involves launching a rocket from a high-altitude balloon, draws upon concepts proposed by the US Navy during the 1950s. By skipping the highest density part of the Earth’s atmosphere, this method could provide a cost-effective solution for launching small and micro-satellites into low-earth orbit.
Scott Hammond, project director at the Shetland Space Centre, said the launch will mark a “truly groundbreaking day” for the centre, as well as for the islands and the UK as a whole.
He said: “It will foreshadow the arrival of a whole new sector in the local economy, with rocket launches to follow from the Lamba Ness site within two years when we can secure all the necessary permissions and the creation later this year of a ground station.”
A local marine engineering company, Ocean Kinetics, will supply a boat to retrieve the balloon when it finally lands off the Shetland coast.