An unconventional California company has won a $200,000 contract with the Air Force Space Command to develop a way to launch one-pound micro-satellites quickly and cheaply using big balloons. “We’re masters of the really cheap stuff,” said John Powell, founder of J.P. Aerospace, based outside Sacramento, Calif.
The system would use a 175-foot-long balloon to lift a small satellite 25 miles above the surface of the planet. At 120,000 feet, a small rocket would drive the satellite into orbit.
A conventional rocket launch can cost up to $20,000 per pound of payload, compared with a couple thousand dollars or less for a balloon launch. A balloon also could be launched on much shorter notice than a rocket. J.P. hopes to be able to put a satellite into space by balloon in about 90 minutes. A conventional launch must be scheduled months or years ahead, said Mike Cucharek, a spokesman for the Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. “We’re looking at moving away from launching on schedule to launching on demand,” Cucharek said.
The Air Force sought out J.P. Aerospace after hearing of the small company’s successes. With 50 volunteers and a handful of paid staff members, J.P. has put 3,000 pingpong balls into space in an educational project for schoolchildren. The disadvantage of the system is that micro-satellites will stay aloft only for about three weeks before burning in the Earth’s atmosphere.