A group of students from the University of Cambridge who plan on launching a rocket into space for less than £1,000 have taken the first steps towards achieving their ambitious goal.
Carl Morland, Henry Hallam and Robert Fryers, all from the Department of Engineering have successfully sent a bundle of equipment to the edge of space using a helium balloon.
The tiny payload, no bigger than a lunchbox, flew to nearly four times the height of Everest before descending by parachute, taking photographs throughout the flight, including dramatic images showing the curvature of the earth.
In the long term, their project - dubbed 'Project Nova' - aims to pave the way for the launch of small payloads for commercial research organisations into space. The method would be very cheap, costing a matter of several hundred pounds, instead of the six-figure sums currently required.
"This marks the first step in a series of flights to prove our tracking and telemetry systems work," Carl said. "Once we can take a larger payload stably up to 30km, we will be in a position to launch a rocket from the balloon that will reach the 100 kilometre boundary of space for a tiny fraction of the present cost.
"By using a balloon to go as high as possible, a considerably smaller rocket can be used as there is much less drag due to the thinner air."
The balloon carried a camera, data transmission system and two tracking systems, as well as a parachute and rose at a steady rate of about 11mph from the launch site at Churchill College. The flight lasted about three hours, producing more than 800 images in total.
As the balloon rose it expanded. Exactly two hours after lift-off, at an altitude of 32.2km, or 106,500ft above sea level, it burst, releasing the payload which was brought back to earth by parachute.
The descent was initially rapid in the thin air, reaching a peak descent rate of 100mph. Once the parachute had fully opened, the balloon landed safely at 12mph. The team was able to track the payload's position to within ten metres throughout the journey.
Project Nova is part of Cambridge University Spaceflight, a student-run organisation dedicated to space flight development and has been funded by the Cambridge-MIT Institute.