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How would a person get an experiment done in space? What is the chain of command on something like that?

I would like to drop some inflated balloons from space to reenter the atmosphere to see which materials would pop first or if at all, but to do that how do I get the balloons up there?

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  • $\begingroup$ If you want to see what happens to the balloons, you need a suitable method of observation. Small balloons could not be observed by telescopes from Earth, you need a camera close to the balloons and radio transmission to ground. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jan 7 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe we could put a tiny transmitter in them and see how far they make it from release. If they do not pop then they should travel. $\endgroup$ – Muze the good Troll. Jan 7 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ a tiny transmitter would be good for some ten kilometers but difficult for several hundred to some thousands km. An omnidirectional antenna would be needed with no gain $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jan 7 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ space.stackexchange.com/questions/26173/… $\endgroup$ – Muze the good Troll. Jan 7 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ On a side note, if you "drop" an inflated balloon from the near-vacuum of space, shouldn't it pop immediately? The dangers your specimen encounter on the fall down (or rather deceleration through atmospheric friction) are more related to heat ... $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Jan 8 at 19:04
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Normal method to get things into space as a private individual is to build a cubesat, comply with the rules of whoever is going to fly it, send it to them and wait till they have a slot. Some costs here but depends heavily if someone chooses to sponser the launch in some way because they are interested in the results (noting sponsor can mean things like getting assistance with engineering and testing or access to lower cost launches, not just $).

Note that those rules often restrict things like pressurised gases so reading the fine print and doing the engineering to prove you are not going to blow up an entire launch on the pad is critical to avoid being rejected without a refund.

If you just want to get your payload up high a sounding rocket will do it for lower costs but skips true re-entry.

If you have a concept for a space experiment you can also work through an educational organization that is building cubesats as part of engineering and propose your concept to them, which potentially gets it to fly for free but requires a concept both interesting and practical for their budget and experience.

A more pragmatic problem for your specific question is 'how are you going to tell what balloon did what'. By themselves they will re-enter randomly, if you build a cubesat with a RCS system to de-orbit exactly over your home, all the action will take place 100km up at a couple of km a second. Even if your cube sat has sensors on it, it will be flying a very different trajectory.

A more practical way to actually investigate the balloons from orbit question is to simulate it, either yourself or by paying to have it done. If results are interesting do runs in a high altitude wind tunnel and only then actually attempt to fly something in space, knowing a fair bit about what could go wrong and waste the whole thing.

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For university students in ESA member states, ESA has an education programme called REXUS BEXUS. This programme enables groups of university students to submit proposals, build their own instrument, then fly it on gondola underneath a stratospheric balloon (BEXUS) or within the payload of a sounding rocket (REXUS). I have been part of a team flying an instrument on a BEXUS payload. You will share the platform with other teams. The selection of experiments is competitive. The launch is covered by ESA, but teams need to get their own sponsorship for other costs.

If successful, it provides a unique opportunity to fly experiments that would otherwise not be affordable for university students, as well as a great career boost.

One of my BEXUS team members went on to lead the team of engineers building an instrument that's drilling into Mars.

Failing that, it's just a matter of paying enough money to a company or organisation performing launches. Balloon launches are cheapest, suborbital rocket launches cost more, launching into orbit is expensive, but you can share the cost with others, with the extreme case of cost-sharing being a cubesat, as described in GremlinWrangers answer, the only way you are remotely likely to launch into orbit unless you have very deep pockets. However, for the experiment you describe, you don't want to go into orbit; suborbital is good enough, perhaps a balloon is, too (it brings up above 99% of the mass of the atmosphere). Good luck.

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