Those International Astronautical Congress visitors, who choose for the evening of October 15 to attend a press-conference within IAF Global Networking Forum, had chance to witness formal claim of another player to enter promising and highly competitive market of dedicated SmallSat launch services.
Barcelona-based startup Zero2Infinity introduced Bloostar – three-stage rocket to be launched from a balloon at near 20 km altitude. All stages will use liquid oxygen - methane (LOX-CH4) propellant components pair, and are expected to be able to orbit 125 kg of payload to 400 km altitude low Earth orbit, and 75 kg to 600 km sun-synchronous orbit. (Photo credit: Zero2Infinity)
So, why to use a high-altitude balloon-assisted launcher, or rockoon (a rocket fired from a balloon)? The rockoon concept presents tremendous advantages. The fact that the rocket does not need to travel through the denser parts of the atmosphere saves it an important part of the required deltaV. Also, the rocket ignites in close-to-vacuum conditions with tremendous benefits in terms of lower drag, smaller gravity losses and adapted nozzles.
The balloon carrying Bloostar will be launched from a boat located near Canary Islands at latitude of 27 degrees. Zero2Infinity considers this as an ideal location, since it provides substantial cost-savings from not having to pay for a range, as well as winds there are stable for launching balloons. After separation, balloon may be used as communications relay for the launch system.As it was mentioned, each stage of Bloostar rocket will have toroid-shaped tanks filled with LOX and methane. First stage will be powered by six 15 kN thrust engines, while second and third stages will employ equal 2kN thrusters – 6 on the 2nd stage and 1 on the upper stage.
What are the market perspectives for Bloostar? According to Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, CEO and founder of Zero2Infinity, price for Bloostar launch is $4 million, but discounts are possible in case of block-buys. This is, as per señor Urdiales, near half the price of Zero2Infinity's competitors.
Here we should note that, for example, companies like Virgin Galactic, Firefly Space Systems, and Rocket Lab are developing launch systems with almost twice higher payload capacity than one of Zero2Infinity's system. For instance, NASA recently awarded Venture Class Launch Services contracts and agreed to pay $5.5 million to Firefly, $6.9 million to Rocket Lab, and $4.7 million to Virgin Galactic for 'SmallSats access to low-Earth orbit'.Zero2Infinity says they have already received seven letters of intent from potential customers across 7 countries, totaling $198 million in commitments. Also the company has attracted some venture funding, sufficient for initial operations, from Hong Kong, France, Germany and Spain.
When commercial operations of Bloostar are expected to start? Jose Mariano ensures that debut test-flight of the orbital system is scheduled for the second quarter of 2018. Thereupon, after 4 test launches, there will be the first commercial flight. Also, in order to prove technologies, suborbital flights with 75 kg of payload to 180 km altitude will be available since the end of 2016.However, not only SmallSat launch services market Zero2Infinity keeps in mind, developing Bloostar. It all began from space tourism initiative to attach so-called Bloon capsule to an atmospheric balloon to send humans in it to near-space. Mini-Bloon, a miniature model of Bloon, was launched in 2012 in order to test key technologies, and now it beautifies Zero2Infiity headquarters in technological park near Barcelona.
If you want to take a ride aboard Bloon or mini-Bloon, you will have to pay €110,000, which is less than Virgin Galactic or XCOR Aerospace charge for spaceflight experience aboard their vehicles. However, most likely this price will be increased once spaceflight system becomes viable and operational.Doubtless advantage of Zero2Infinity service is duration of experience. Flight profile of Bloon involves approximately 5-hour mission (2 hours to get to an altitude of near 36 km, 2 hours of near-space travel, and one hour of landing), whereas during a flight aboard SpaceShipTwo or Lynx spaceships you will be in space for just a dozen of minutes.
“One of my motivations in bringing space experience to people, designing something like Bloon that a lot of people can fly on, is to remove those limitations that make it difficult [for some people] to fly. One of the limitations is the extreme cost, another limitation is nationality.” Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, CEO and founder of Zero2Infinity
Jose Urdiales admitted to having negotiations with some world-class celebrities to take a ride aboard Bloon capsule, and only sponsorship of such ride is now an issue. Also he warmly welcomes all the countries that still doesn't have own astronaut to launch their spaceflight program just simply buying a ticket on Bloon. And, by the way, this is huge market, since citizens of only 40 countries have flown in space to date.If everything goes well, first human-rated spaceflight aboard Bloon capsule may take place in 2017. If not? This is not an option for señor Urdiales, who seems very enthusiastic about his initiatives and very mature to turn them into routine of space industry.