Popular Science is pleased to present videos created by Motherboard, Vice Media's guide to future culture. Motherboard's original videos run the gamut from in-depth, investigative reports to profiles of the offbeat forward-thinking characters who are sculpting our bizarre present.
Anyone with enough brains and balls can build their own rocket and fly it to space. Or at least that’s what the non-profit, open source space project Copenhagen Suborbitals wants to prove.
In September, Motherboard scuttled out to Denmark to meet the pioneers behind this new wave in do-it-yourself space exploration to find out how these backyard space rockets are made. Founded in 2008 by two amateur engineers and entrepreneurs, Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, Copenhagen Suborbitals is now comprised of a coterie of 20-plus specialists determined to create the first homemade, manned spacecraft to go into suborbital flight.
If successful--a manned launch is projected for sometime in the next few years--Denmark would be the fourth country in the world, after China, to successfully launch a manned rocket into space. What’s exceptional about such a feat, if completed, will be Kristian and Peter's ability to do so on a shoestring budget of a few hundreds of thousands of dollars, versus the tens of millions of dollars it costs government-funded agencies and the rising tide of private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Bigelow.
And so far, their accomplishments are impressive: their solid-and-liquid-fuel rocket, the HEAT-1X, is the first "amateur" rocket flown with a payload of a full-size crash test dummy, and the first to perform a successful Main Engine Cut-Off, or MECO command, and the first launched from a "low budget" sea-based platform. It's also the most powerful amateur rocket ever flown.
If you’re trying to go to space, there’s no point in being tight-lipped about it. By making the spaceflight project open-source, Copenhagen Suborbitals were not only able to attract space-crazed specialists to volunteer their human capital in exchange for being part of something new and exciting, but they also raised donations, product support and constructive feedback from avid followers from all over the world. They haven't specifically said how much they need to raise, but they estimate that a typical launch should eventually cost 50,000 Euros, or about $63,000 dollars. Today, they continue to raise donations using an IndieGogo campaign.
One man’s kitchen sink valve is another rocket man’s missing component. A D.I.Y. spaceflight project can start with a good rummage at your local plumbing or hardware store. With everyday, off-the-shelf products, the guys behind Copenhagen Suborbitals found cheaper solutions to expensive, complex systems.
“Instead of trying to invent our own valve for instance, why not buy one that’s been produced maybe a million times,” explained Kristian. He said they used a hair dryer in one of the first rocket tests in order to prevent one of the valves from freezing up.
Copenhagen Suborbitals doesn’t operate within limits but rather works around edges. Money and technology are hard to come by, sure, but limitations can often be a blessing in disguise. Instead of shelling out money they didn’t have in order to rent an expensive centrifuge at a NASA research center, the Copenhagen guys went to their local amusement park, the legendary Tivoli Gardens, and turned up the levels on a mechanical ride in order to test a g-force threshold for the eventual launch of their spaceship.
The pair has twice test launched their Tycho Brahe spacecraft--named after the 16th century Danish astronomer known for his remarkably accurate astronomical observations made without the aid of a telescope. In 2010 a power shortage caused a valve to freeze shut, which prevented launch. In 2011 the rocket was successfully launched, reaching an altitude of 2.8 kilometers (1.7 mi) before the engine was shut off due to an undisclosed anomaly.
As opposed to an orbital trajectory, a suborbital flight is essentially a parabolic flight that looks like a massive u-turn from earth to space and back, in a matter of roughly 15 minutes.
With each failed launch test, Copenhagen Suborbitals get closer to disproving the idea that space travel is too complex, expensive and sophisticated an endeavor for the little guys to take on. Mistakes and accidents are as helpful as they are dangerous, which is why Copenhagen Suborbitals emphasizes the value on continual testing of systems. “My constant fight is to keep the quality low,” explained Peter, who cut his engineering teeth on three submarine projects. “If the work is extra good, it takes extra long, and costs extra more.” Basically, if the quality gets too high, then the space rocket will never get finished.
Rocket engines, launch escape systems and parachutes make up the gamut of systems that get tested. Since Copenhagen Suborbitals is bereft of the red tape and regulations characteristic of federally or commercially funded space projects, Kristian explained that his team can go from a revised sketch to an improved prototype, sometimes in less than five minutes. That's far quicker than NASA, of course, where he helped to design new moon rovers and co-authored the agency's Human Integration Design Handbook.
Static test of the HEAT-1XP rocket engine. The thrust is of about 7 tons. That’s like the power of a charging adult elephant. (Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals)
Days before airing our video, we checked in with Kristian to get the latest update on the progress of their spacecraft and an eventual date for their first manned launch to take place. He got back to us briefly, tantalizing in his vagueness: “new capsule coming up and much more…” (He's charted CO's progress in 2012 in an elegant, impressive timeline on his Wired blog.)
There's another engine test scheduled for the end of the month, and development of another capsule. The team haven't yet set a firm date for the first manned launch, which will send Peter into sub-orbit. Until then, the pair are trying to keep their head down, raise funds, and stay on schedule, just like the pros. It's a routine they clearly relish. When we asked Kristian what scare him most, he thought for a moment. “I’m afraid I won’t know what to do next if this actually works.”
I want friends like these guys.
With the right kind of invention (propulsion) these types of guys could be mining their own asteroids in 20 years, for huge profits.
Why burn so much fuel just to get suborbital why not just balloon there, cover it with a net so it doesn't burst, and bring an inflatables printer. Have a cabin on the inside and many redundant gas and liquid chambers All the materials for a garden and a solar sail.
Sub-orbital launches are only useful for joyrides. Once the novelty wears off, these guys won't be able to make enough money to fund the flights. Not to mention the fact that once they start launching paying passengers, they will have to get the vehicle certified by some government agency, which will cost huge amounts of money.
I'm with dkella. This is the first step in their project. once they have their first successful human launch they could be flooded with funding from companies who want of piece of it. and image if they can launch a person with only a little funding what can they do with a lot of funding? the possibilities are endless.
Oh my god! The collective liberal nonsense has become self aware and is posting inappropriate comments on Popsci as "beyond9"!
No, but seriously, your comment is so retarded that I actually feel a little sick having read it. You're a despicable human being and you shouldn't be trusted with scotch tape.
in order to thank everyone, characteristic, novel style, varieties, low price and good quality, and the low sale price. Thank everyone
│ ● ● │—☆—
│○ ╰┬┬┬╯ ○│／｜＼
│ ╰—╯ ／
".... the possibilities are endless....."
porshe469- No, the possibilities are not endless. These guys are not doing anything that hasn't been done before with regards to technology. Do you truly believe that aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin or Ariane are so stupid that they cannot figure out how to do the same thing these guys are doing?
Uh, no PopSci, this would NOT make Denmark the fourth nation to successfully launch a rocket into space, because DENMARK IS NOT BUILDING OR LAUNCHING THIS OPEN SOURCE PROJECT. Did I miss something in the article that says Denmark is throwing engineering PhD's, materials, facilities, and raw cash into a national space shot? Then it's not Denmark's rocket, is it? It's not their space program, is it?
Please don't try to lessen the real world impact of this project by taking the credit away from the PEOPLE who are doing this WITHOUT NATIONAL SUPPORT.
@ riff_raff: Did anyone on here say that any of our top aerospace firms or their people were stupid? Nope.
But, no; to answer your question, none of those firms you mentioned, plus many, many more CANNOT do what these guys are doing.
Billion dollar a year corporations that live off the government tit CANNOT do this without LOSING ALL THAT PORK. How likely is it that Lockheed is going to put their Air Force procurement in danger when currently they are either still in design, or are actually building the replacement for the SR-71/A-10's? Planes that will in fact conduct suborbital operations. Not very likely, and I think most billionaires would confidently bet a billion on it.
As long as the pork and corporate welfare flow, NONE of the bigs will ever put up their own butts and treasure on a solo space shot.
Masses dont need rockets. If the masses don't need Segways, which is obviously the case, they certainly don't need rockets. Why do "pop-sci" writers write this way? In the 70's they wrote about colonies on the Moon, now they're writing about colonies on Mars. I mean, where does it end? Science and nonsense have merged into a giant, blazing singularity.
"....Did anyone on here say that any of our top aerospace firms or their people were stupid? Nope.
But, no; to answer your question, none of those firms you mentioned, plus many, many more CANNOT do what these guys are doing....."
quasi44- No one specifically stated that aerospace companies and their engineers were stupid, but their comments certainly implied as much.
As for commercial aerospace companies not being able to do what these guys at Copenhagen Suborbitals are doing, that's also a silly notion. They certainly have the technical resources to do so. The difference between them and Copenhagen Suborbitals is that the aerospace companies have to pay salaries and produce a profit for their shareholders. CS does not have such obligations.
Even the darlings of the new space launch companies, like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, are heavily subsidized by either NASA money or private money. None of them can currently show a profit, nor will they likely be able to in the future.
@ riff_raff; Even the darlings are heavily subsidized by NASA or private money. Well, yes! Is there some other source of cash for aerospace in this country? Well, there IS the military if that would be better than NASA. I'll help you out. 2 out of every 3 dollars spent on aerospace in America are tax dollars. The other one is in fact private money.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not advocating for our porkbarrel billionaires that live off the government tit. I'm just recognizing the reality here. No one is going to up and volunteer to be blacklisted by Big Brother. They've watched Bigelow Aerospace wait what? 40 years? To finally get a CHANCE to get one of his habs up. No guarantees. And Bigelow didn't actually piss anyone off as far as I know. Our government will keep the American aerospace industry under their thumb until there are too many entities to conveniently control with the prospect of public funding and then they will set up the regulating body for the industry that should already exist. It doesn't exist because our government does not actually want private citizens or smaller corporations thinking it's just fine to build and launch rockets capable of getting into orbit. Uncle Sam probably hates Copenhagen Suborbitals already.
"....I'll help you out. 2 out of every 3 dollars spent on aerospace in America are tax dollars. The other one is in fact private money....."
quasi44- Actually, the majority annual revenues (and profits) generated by US aerospace companies comes from the private sector. For the Boeing Corp. alone, 80% of their $4 billion+ profits come from commercial aircraft sales.
I agree with earlier statement. That this has nothing to do with Denmark. Maybe that is where these guys live but it doesn't read like they are Denmark's government employed science department. Also, so they have a floating ocean launch platform. Good, does this mean that if they launch in international waters that they will not have to answer to any government or have to obtain any governmental approvals for their launch vehicle? I guess unless by UN maybe or by force? Anyway I like that these are D.I.Y rocket builders I mean why not lets find the cheapest way up there. Space X is worlds cheaper than NASA and these guys are worlds cheaper than Space X. Lets get the common man up there as quickly as possible so that we can start to exploit the riches of our solar system and escape the grasp of our large governmental iron fists. They only serve to keep us down as long as possible for their own greedy financial gains. Thus one reason as to why NASA is so pricey.
It's not that public and private organizations can not do the same thing, because we know they can. Like quasi44 said, these firms are using all of the funding they receive. However it's not primarily for paying employees, because if one wanted to turn up profit (in the case of the private aerospace industry) meeting a high demand at a low production cost would generate greater profit return as the level to break even would be much lower than if the production cost were higher (why government employees often get paid less than private citizens).
"Big Aerospace" uses all the money it receives to reinvent the wheel in terms of subcomponents necessary to make a working spacecraft. These men from Copenhagen are making devices of 1950s level technology by building rockets from spare parts and a box of scraps. Would make it cheaper to do it that way. Government employmees and private industry employees under government support are only allowed so much innovation when it comes to spending government cheese.