WHEN Felix Baumgartner leaped into space from a balloon 10 years ago, the world watched on with bated breath as the Austrian daredevil plummeted towards Earth, around 24 miles (38km) below.
Baumgartner’s successful skydive from the stratosphere made him world famous, but for four engineer friends, his exploits also sparked an idea.
Just as he had floated into the heavens with a gigantic helium balloon, could the same technique provide a solution to costly rocket technology?
Now based in Newport, their company, B2Space, is leading the way in developing an alternative, sustainable way to send smaller satellites into space.
Valentin Canales is the firm’s co-founder, chief technology officer and chief executive.
He told the Argus that he and three colleagues, who all met while working for Airbus in Bristol, watched Baumgartner’s epic skydive and saw the potential to solve a bottleneck in the space industry.
“We had a common interest in the space industry and technology, and were observing the exponential growth the small- and micro-satellites industry was experiencing,” he said.
These satellites weigh less than 440lbs (200kg) and typically range in size from a shoe box to that of a washing machine.
“This massive growth was not supported by the launch industry – there is a bottleneck in access to orbit for satellites, which had to wait a long time to get their ride to space,” Mr Canales explained.
“So we decided to find solutions to this need, and created B2Space with the objective of providing affordable, reliable and flexible launches to orbit for small- and micro-satellites, while aiming to be the most sustainable launch company in the world.”
Their ‘rockoon’ vision was for a stratospheric balloon to lift a rocket-equipped satellite platform 21 miles (35km) into the air, where the atmosphere is a thousand times thinner than on the ground.
Then, the platform points the rocket into the right direction, ignites it, and sends the satellites to orbit.
Mr Canales said the project is “completely different from anything done so far” and could save more than 70 per cent of fuel and costs, compared with current launch techniques.
But the concept posed tricky engineering challenges, and forced B2Space to develop new software to predict the flight of the balloon and to aim and stabilise the platform before the rockets are ignited.
The launch module also had to be strengthened to withstand the high levels of radiation and extreme temperatures of the stratosphere.
All this is being done from the B2Space headquarters on the edge of Newport. Mr Canales said the firm chose the city because of its good transport links and because it lies at the heart of an area with a well-established aerospace industry.
The firm currently comprises 26 engineers in Newport, with a subsidiary office in Spain, and there are plans to expand further over the next two years, including an aim to increase the workforce to 100 by 2025.
“We are well in our route to achieve our first commercial orbital launch by 2024, increasing our skills and capabilities,” Mr Canales said. “We will move shortly to larger offices and workshop in Newport to accommodate for the manufacturing and assembly of our rocket vehicle and systems, although we will still closely collaborate with our local supply chain for different high value manufacturing.”
B2Space has raised nearly £4 million from private investment and grant funding, including support from the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and the Welsh Government.
In Wales, ministers have made a recent push to invest in the space industry, which currently employs 42,000 people and generates an income of £14.8 billion each year in the UK, and is expected to be worth £400 billion globally in 2030.
The Welsh Government’s for Wales to achieve a five per cent share of the UK’s share, which would equate to £2 billion per year for the Welsh economy. There is also a demand for greener technologies, and it is here B2Space could come into its own.
On a recent visit to the firm’s Newport base, economy minister Vaughan Gething praised the “innovative” and “world-leading” balloon project, which he said could “propose viable solutions to both minimise their carbon footprint and make significant reductions in the levels of CO2 produced on Earth”.