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Space balloons will end the hitchhiker ride through the galaxy for testing new technologies in space

When Felix Baumgartner leapt into a supersonic freefall 24 miles high from the Red Bull Stratos balloon he set a world space-jump record. He was also the inspiration behind a pioneering start-up company about to use the same stratospheric balloon technology to make space more accessible for businesses looking to launch and test parts for satellites in low earth orbit.

However, there is a bottleneck of access to space for small businesses.  To address this, space tech start-up B2Space has developed a high altitude, flexible launching system for small satellites.  Based on the ‘rockoon’ (rocket/balloon) concept, a stratospheric balloon carries a small rocket up to an altitude of about 35km, which then launches to deliver small satellites into their required orbits. Doing so skips the highest density part of the atmosphere, which dramatically saves on both weight and cost, allowing for a more efficient and cost effective design.

At the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre United Kingdom (ESA BIC UK), which is managed and co-funded by STFC, the company is about to develop a dedicated, customisable stratospheric testing platform, upon which businesses can remotely test their components in conditions similar to those found in low Earth orbit. 

Such testing is essential for components designed for use inside small satellites in orbit, from the durability of batteries in harsh space conditions, to the shielding of components from radioactive rays.  To perform such tests, small satellites would normally need to hitch a ride as secondary ‘passengers’ on larger rockets to perform their test in-orbit. The only other option is to use a thermal vacuum chamber back on Earth, but capacity is limited and a business can wait for months for a slot to become available.  Both options can be expensive for a small business.

B2Space co-founder, Valentin Canales, said: “Opening up access to space so that businesses can launch small satellites, and carry out near-space testing activities affordably is our mission, and we’re really excited about this next step for our business. Having only very recently joined the ESA BIC UK at the Harwell Campus, I’m absolutely thrilled that our business is experiencing the positive benefits already.  From essential IP support to advice on funding, joining the ESA BIC UK has put B2Space in the perfect position to take our business to the next level. This is a very exciting time for B2Space and things are progressing quickly as we now move into the design and build phases, with a view to testing our technologies with two balloon flights later this year.” 

Thanks to further funding through the ‘STFC Cross Cluster Proof of Concept Call’, B2Space is now also investigating the possibility of incorporating the use of a virtual reality robotic arm in space as part of its test bench during the balloon flight. This tele-operated robotic arm, enhanced with AR/VR and haptics technology, will be fitted with sensors and could be controlled from earth using augmented reality and a wearable glove. This concept has multiple applications also out of the Space industry, such as in the nuclear industry to support decommissioning of plants, sub-sea operations and defence. Canales added: “Joining the ESA BIC UK has enabled us to collaborate with major players in this field with whom we are now working to further develop this idea.  The networking and collaboration opportunities are proving invaluable.”

Managed by STFC, the ESA BIC UK enables up to 12 UK start-ups every year to use space and satellite technologies to develop new products and services. Since opening in 2011 it has helped 75 start-up companies, 66 of which have already graduated from the centre and are now rocketing their way to commercial success as vibrant, growing businesses.

Sue O’Hare, Operations Manager at the ESA BIC Harwell said: “B2Space is an outstanding example of how access to the right technologies, skills, business support and funding can help start-ups use space technologies in new ways.  B2Space is opening up access to space for businesses in a way that has not been done before, enabling other business to achieve their own missions.  This has far reaching benefits for society, and is exactly the kind of thing that STFC and the ESA BIC UK set out to help early-stage companies achieve. Companies incubated at the ESA BIC UK have a 92% success rate, so I’m thrilled to be able to support such a pioneering company through its growth and success.”

About the ESA BIC UK

With three business incubation sites at Harwell, Daresbury and Edinburgh, the ESA BIC UK is part of a growing network of successful ESA BICs across Europe.

Companies that join the ESA BIC UK benefit from £41,500 funding, access to IP, technologies and expertise generated by ESA research, as well as to STFC’s world class expertise and technical facilities, with dedicated business support. 

Further information about the ESA BIC UK, how it can benefit your company can be found at the ESA BIC UK website, and more success stories here.

Last updated: 24 June 2019

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