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I am new to the site and am unaware of the correct formation of my question. That being said, I wanted to know if this is plausable and what would be the correct way of tackling this idea.

If I had a mass of 100 - 500 grams and I wanted to get it into orbit I was thinking the best way for me to do it would be to use a weather balloon for the first leg of the journey and launch from there?

The balloon could be taurus shaped with a circular platform below to ensure it was a vertical launch.

So to get my mass of 100 - 500 grams into orbit what sort of size rocket would I be looking at for such a task.

Thanks

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to stackexchange! There are (at least) three good ways to become more aware of some good formats for question. 1) Take the tour!, 2) look at several of the 6,000 other questions here that you find interesting and see the various ways they are formatted, and 3) click the Tags menu and then type "balloons" and see what what balloon-related questions look like. You may find helpful answers there. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 30 '17 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ It's possible you question has been asked before and might be marked as a duplicate. Don't worry if that happens, it's not a bad thing. One of the goals of SE is to generate a body of good questions and good answers. If there's already a good answer to your question below a previous question, it's just standard practice to point back to that answer rather than create a duplicate answer. That way future readers are directed to the best source. You can ask as many questions as you like, so feel free to ask a new, follow-up question as well. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 30 '17 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ The toroidal balloon geometry allowing vertical launch is an interesting idea! A pair or triplet of standard balloons and various truss configurations would work also, but the torus is really elegant. I think this aspect makes your question somewhat unique. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 30 '17 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ Related questions to get you started: space.stackexchange.com/questions/13729/… and what-if.xkcd.com/58 and space.stackexchange.com/questions/18789/… $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Jul 30 '17 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ Historical background: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockoon $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jul 30 '17 at 12:46
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You have the right idea. For very small payloads launched by very small rockets, it becomes increasingly attractive to get the rocket above as much of the atmosphere as possible.

And you are in good company, Virgin Galactic's Space Ship Two, Orbital ATK's Pegasus, and Scaled Composites' Stratolaunch are all current or near future air-launch platforms. Incidentally, Wired Magazine's article about Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen founded Stratolaunch points out that it is going to be the largest airplane in the world.

There are several helpful answers to the question Can a miniature Saturn V get to the moon and back? and you should read them all, but I'll summarize the issues as aerodynamic drag and "gravity-drag", and just say here that as you scale a rocket down in size, the thrust decreases faster than the drag. This ends up requiring the rocket to accelerate more slowly in the dense part of the atmosphere to decrease the drag, which causes a secondary "gravity drag" penalty, the fraction of the thrust that is needed to simply keep the rocket from falling back to Earth. It's a little like having to push down constantly on the pedal of a bike just to keep from rolling backwards down a hill, except that rockets have to push by spending active thrust because they aren't touching the ground.

This is why small rockets tend to be very long and skinny, to pack more thrust behind them while minimizing area. This only works to some extent because the sides of the rocket also generate drag, otherwise we'd have ridiculously long, skinny needle-rockets.

So for a 500 or 100 gram payload and a small rocket (which seems like it might be affordable until you do the numbers), getting above the air is a great idea!

The big problem is that when you make rockets smaller, you end up making other compromises by making it cheaper and simpler. This means the performance is lower. It won't be a "mini Saturn-V". This comment by @Deimophobia links to the analysis done by Dorin Patru, Jeffrey D. Kozak, and Robert J. Bowman at The Rochester Institute of Technology, and presented at the 20th annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites as A Custom Launch System for Satellites Smaller Than 1 kg.

The LEO orbital velocity, i.e. 200-300 km, is $v_{LEO}$ = 7600 m/s. A total $\Delta v_{LOSS}$ of 1600 m/s is assumed, due to (1) thrust-atmospheric loss, (2) drag loss, (3) gravity loss, and (4) maneuvering and launch window allowance. The thrust-atmospheric and drag losses will be much smaller compared to a sea-level launch, due to the very high altitude of the entire powered flight.

Also you end up making it relatively heavier. What does that mean? A really high performance big rocket can have well over 90% of its mass as pure propellant. I think the record is 94% or 95% but I'm still looking for a source. But when you build a small rocket, this gets really difficult. Making all the structural components, containers, and the engine as small and lightweight becomes a real challenge, and that means expensive materials and manufacturing techniques not available to hobbyists. The RIT work explains that the test stage they built never aimed for the "structure to propellant mass ratio of 1/10" since it was for ground tests. This would have been even harder.

They show that for a smaller scale rocket, using a fairly safe hybrid $I_{SP} = 230 \text{s}$ engine design that is still way beyond "hobby level", you'll need at least $100,000, a team of people, some radio equipment, and about a 200 kg, four stage rocket to put 1kg into LEO.

Space-capable rockets are much more difficult and expensive to make than hobby-rockets, as illustrated by the engine comparison in this answer.

You also need to file several documents and receive approval from some serious government agencies.

The same rocket would have to be much much bigger to launch from Earth, I'm guessing 500 to 1000 kg, but the point is it's still not going to be a "hobby rocket" to get to orbit from a balloon. It is still quite a technical challenge, and if you can build this kind of challenging rocket, then when you are faced with the choice of the hassles of the balloon versus just making the rocket bigger, growing the rocket becomes more and more attractive.

If you'd like more explained about the RIT paper, leave a comment and I'll expand the discussion.


below: Screen shots from A Custom Launch System for Satellites Smaller Than 1 kg.

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  • $\begingroup$ SpaceShipTwo really isn't relevant to discussion of going to orbit where it's only suborbital, it's basically just a human-payload sounding rocket. +1 for the thorough and well documented answer, though! $\endgroup$ – FKEinternet Jul 31 '17 at 6:50
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Using a balloon to elevate your launch location will only really be beneficial for getting small payloads into orbit where the launching rocket would otherwise suffer significant aerodynamic losses.

As indicated on page 7 of this biography of James van Allen , the rockoon (balloon/rocket combination) was introduced because it made it possible to reach high altitudes with small but useful payloads at very low cost.

Unlike a sounding rocket where the primary goal is to reach the maximum altitude possible flying more or less straight up and down, an orbital launch requires a large change in angular velocity around the center of mass you're launching from - the Earth, in the case of all of the current human readers of these pages.

Your balloon launch platform could get you past most of the aerodynamic resistance on your journey to orbit, but most (larger) rockets spend much more of their fuel fighting gravity than pushing air out of the way. As your rocket gets smaller, though, atmospheric drag becomes an increasingly important factor, until you start getting to the limits of how small you can make an orbital launcher.

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  • $\begingroup$ The benefit to a high altitude air launch is that aerodynamic and gravity losses are avoided. Virgin Galactic's Space Ship Two, Orbital ATK's Pegasus, and Scaled Composites' Stratolaunch are all current or near future air-launch platforms. Lateral velocity has nothing to do with it, it's all about getting away from high density air and gravity loss, $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 31 '17 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ Most payloads are simply too heavy to be lofted by a balloon, or too valuable, or the launch window must be better controlled so powered aircraft are used instead of balloons. From the largest airplane in the world; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen founded Stratolaunch to the partnership between ThumbSat and CubeCab, air-launch is an option that's captured a lot of serious interest. Don't write air launch off so easily! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 31 '17 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ "gravity losses are avoided"? How does that work? Aerodynamic losses, definitely, especially for smaller payloads, as noted in e.g., How small could an orbital rocket be? but an air launch has just as much gravity to overcome as a ground launch. The OP asked about going to orbit, so SpaceShipTwo really isn't relevant where it's only suborbital, basically a human-rated sounding rocket. I'm certainly not writing off air launches, I'm just saying a balloon launch won't help a lot for getting to orbit. $\endgroup$ – FKEinternet Jul 31 '17 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ Small rockets have proportionately more drag than larger rockets, requiring lower velocity at low altitudes where density is high. That means more time, and gravity losses are proportional to time spent sub-orbital. This is standard rocket science. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 31 '17 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ I tend to think more in gravity cost than gravity loss (atter expression seems an odd misnomer to me), but then hey, is that a cat or a household feline? [Most] rockets spend more energy fighting gravity than they do on attaining orbital speed, for example, a Saturn V would spend a full 4% of its fuel just to clear the launch tower (supporting link buried somewhere in my Space History Newsletter). That's a consequence of living at the bottom of a gravity well: You have to climb your way out, no matter how you look at it. $\endgroup$ – FKEinternet Jul 31 '17 at 6:43

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