At 12:50pm on the 14th of February 2019, Richard Beech and Dan Blaney were excited. Two and a half hours earlier, they had been at Bromsgrove Pre-Prep School in Worcestershire, launching a spacecraft into space on a balloon as part of our Classtronauts educational program. Now, they were 85km from the school outside of a village called Little Houghton in our recovery vehicle, tracking the spacecraft as it parachuted down to Earth. And conditions were perfect for them to achieve a world first: they were going to catch it in their bare hands.
…or so they hoped. In fact, the idea of physically catching one of our launch vehicles had been an ongoing competition within our team for several years. Launching an object into space on a balloon and catching it as it returns is a serious technical challenge. Our craft are built without thrust and navigational capabilities, which means the path they take up and down is largely determined by which way the wind is blowing.
How does one attempt a catch from 30,000 feet?!
Using sophisticated climate models built from weather data collected across the globe, we can predict the path our vehicle will travel through the air to within a few hundred metres several days in advance of launch day. By controlling the gas volume used to provide lift force, the type and size of balloon used to contain the gas and the parachute used to bring the vehicle back down, we can also precisely determine the ascent speed, burst altitude and descent speed to adjust the flight path for our requirements.
Putting a launch vehicle down within a 200-metre diameter circle is one thing, but being within that circle in just the right place to catch the vehicle is quite another. The hardest part of the flight path to predict is the section closest to the ground. In the stratosphere, wind behaviour is straightforward to model and predict. The lack of obstacles means the wind separates into distinct layers blowing at different speeds and in different directions. This phenomenon gives the region its name – ‘stratus’ is Latin for ‘spread out’.
Closer to the ground, however, the geographic features of the planet’s surface all affect pockets of wind in unpredictable ways. Without a 1:1 digital model of the Earth’s surface, it’s functionally impossible to accurately simulate air currents within 500 metres of the ground. As such, the only way to catch an object is to intuit the likely flight path based on real-time experience – or put another way, stand outside and try to guess where it’s going based on how breezy it feels.
Before this day, there had been countless near-misses. A sudden gust taking the launch vehicle right out of our hands, a hedge between two fields blocking the path as we sprinted towards the descending craft, the branch of a nearby tree catching the parachute and suspending it before it reached us were all well-known frustrations to our plans.
On this day, though, the landing site was clear of obstacles, the wind on the ground was consistent and predictable and the clear sky gave them excellent visibility. Their experience gauging the weather and practice at tracking the vehicle and adjusting predictions in real-time had put them in just the right place. In the end, Richard had the honour of completing the catch, with Dan falling just a few seconds behind.
What world record did SIS achieve?
This set a world record for the world’s longest catch – the vehicle fell a distance of 30,739 metres from the balloon bursting to reaching Richard’s hands.
So can we do it again? Well, this kind of catch has always been simply a bonus for us, an internal point of pride. For the right client, we have several plans guaranteed to help beat our record and pass the title on. World records are a great way for a brand to generate organic press coverage, compounding the incredible reach achieved by our space campaigns. Discuss your requirements with our team today.