Spaceflight Insider

Amateur spaceflight? Copenhagen Suborbitals, SpaceChain Space Program give it a shot

Engineer setting up BPM-5 engine on test bed. Photo Credit: Carsten Olsen / Copenhagen Suborbitals

Engineer setting up BPM-5 engine on test bed. Photo Credit: Carsten Olsen / Copenhagen Suborbitals

On Sunday, May 31, Copenhagen Suborbitals (CS) performed the second test fire of their BPM-5 rocket engine. Earlier in May, CryptoCoinsNews posted a report about SpaceChain Space Program, the space agency of Bitnation. Both of these groups are essentially collections of enthusiastic amateurs, volunteering their time, talent, and money to achieve spaceflight on their own terms. The first of those two groups, Copenhagen Suborbitals, is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and is the brainchild of Peter Madsen, who has experience building his own submarine. When Kristian von Bengtson, who used to work for NASA, read about Madsen’s desire to build a manned rocket DIY-style, he chose to join him in his endeavor.

Their primary goal is to eventually put a person into space – suborbital, but beyond the Kármán line – and bring them home safely.

“We aim to prove that human spaceflight – by many considered the most difficult technology to master – can be different from the usual expensive and governmental controlled projects,” declares CS on their website. “We hope to inspire people to do what may seem impossible – and we do it because it’s great fun!”

Close-up of BPM-5 engine on test bed. Photo Credit: Carsten Olsen / Copenhagen Suborbitals

Close-up of the BPM-5 engine on a test bed. Photo Credit: Carsten Olsen / Copenhagen Suborbitals

Madsen and von Bengtson named and built CS together, with tasks divided up pretty clearly in the beginning, according to the May 2014 issue of The Red Bulletin. Madsen was in charge of getting their rocket to fly high enough and Bengtson was to be in charge of keeping Madsen alive during the flight. Today, the group is staffed by a myriad of volunteers and supported by sponsorships and donations, all sharing that same initial goal.

CS keeps its supporters very well updated, as it’s an open source project and the people in charge want to share as much of their technical information as they legally can. A recent blog post about their early May BPM-2 rocket engine tests is evidence of that desire, as it details not only the tests themselves but also the improvements made this time based on the first round of BPM-2 tests. They also offer guided tours of the facility, and they update their Facebook page significantly more often than the blog with photos and progress updates.

Cameron Smith, who had been planning to build himself a pressure suit and a balloon to carry him as far from Earth’s surface as possible, was brought onto the CS team to design the spacesuit. CS believes the suborbital mission can be done in street clothes as long as there isn’t a major cabin leak, so the suit is supposed to be just an extra precaution.

“We are also providing [the] last chance of survival for the astronaut by blasting away the hatch followed by a jump with a personal chute [–] if things ‘goes wrong’ [sic] during descent. In regular clothing[,] you have a limited height for this but the suit will add some extra kilometers to this risky contingency scenario,” von Bengtson wrote for Wired in February 2013.

“I know a lot of people want us to go with a ‘real’ space suit. For some reason[,] everyone claims that this part cannot be done the DIY way. But that was also what people told us related to parachutes, guidance… actually all subsystems,” von Bengtson said.

Smith is not working alone, but with a team called Pacific Spaceflight.

BPM-5 engine test animated gif. Photo Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

BPM-5 engine undergoing a test (animated gif). Photo Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

CS does have several unmanned launch attempts in its dossier, though not all have been successful. After the first rocket attempt, HEAT 1X in June 2010, failed to get off the launch pad, they tried again in June 2011. The rocket did lift off, carrying their Tycho Brahe spacecraft, but it pitched over to a flight path that was about 30 degrees to horizontal, triggering a manual engine shutdown 15 seconds into the flight. The parachutes did not deploy correctly either, and the space capsule crashed into the water at speeds that would have been fatal for a human occupant. Still, the company learned a lot and launched an experimental two-stage hybrid rocket, Smaragd, in July 2012.

“Within the first two seconds of flight, the nose cone, however, detached from the vehicle, and since all electronics were contained in the nose cone, almost no usable data was obtained. The vehicle[,] however[,] continued its flight and ignited the second stage as planned,” according to their website. The parachutes then were unable to deploy and both stages were lost in the ocean.

But CS tried yet again with their Sapphire rocket in June 2013, a single-stage hybrid rocket. This one had a navigation and thrust vectoring system to keep the vehicle on the right path, and was their most successful launch to date.

Future plans involve Nexø 1 and 2, slated to launch sometime this year, and the Spica rocket, which is planned to be the one that actually carries a man to space and, according to the website, “will by a far margin be the largest rocket ever build [sic] by amateurs.”

The other amateur space program that has been gaining attention recently is the SpaceChain Space Program, which bills itself as the Bitnation Space Agency, though it existed before gaining that title. It’s a newer group, with its first blog post dated March 8 of this year, and its earliest Facebook posts dating only back to mid-2014.

SpaceChain Space Program logo. Image Credit: SpaceChain Space Program

SpaceChain Space Program logo. Image Credit: SpaceChain Space Program

Iman Mirbloki, a 35-year-old man from Sweden, created the program after his dream of becoming an astronaut through the European Space Agency (ESA) was extinguished due to his hearing impairment. He is now the chief operating officer and former CEO, with his co-founder Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof serving as current CEO of the company, under its title of Bitnation Space Agency.

Their mission, according to their Facebook page, is this: “SpaceChain is an effort to create the first civilian decentralized space program, where everyone [is] welcome to join. All our technology and research results will be open source and we aim for the Moon.”

On April 14, as recorded on the program’s Facebook page, the SpaceChain Space Program officially became the space agency of Bitnation, which, according to Bitnation’s own website, is “a collaborative platform for do-it-yourself governance” that “provides the same services traditional governments provides, from dispute resolution and insurance to security and much more – but in a geographically unbound, decentralized, and voluntary way.”

On May 29 this year, SpaceChain announced its first mission, Stratoshi 1, on the website’s blog. It is a high-altitude balloon experiment, with a target altitude of 30 kilometers, or a little under 19 miles high, and is slated for June or July this year.

Before that, though, on March 8, SpaceChain stated the longer-term mission objective of H.O.P.E. 7, called the 7th rocket in the H.O.P.E. series, though information about the previous six rockets is lacking. The group’s five-year plan says the launch of H.O.P.E. 7 is slated for December this year.

According to the website, the intention for H.O.P.E. 7 is to launch to a 250-kilometer altitude (that is, about 150 miles up, which is significantly beyond the Kármán line) carrying two payloads. The contents are scientific instruments and radio-relay equipment in the first, and extra fuel in the second, to be placed in two different orbits.

SpaceChain lab, as of August 2014. Photo Credit: SpaceChain Space Program (via Facebook)

SpaceChain lab, as of August 2014. Photo Credit: SpaceChain Space Program (via Facebook)

“The first payload, named ‘Goddard 1’ (named after the father of modern rocket science, Dr. Robert H. Goddard)[,] will send a request for refueling to Earth ground control. Ground control will then send back a request to ‘pay’ for the fuel to Goddard 1, which will transfer 7 Bitcoins to ground control. When the ‘payment’ is received, ground control will instruct the second payload, Goddard 2, carrying the extra fuel, to rendezvous with Goddard 1 and dock in orbit. When the extra fuel has been transferred to Goddard 1, it will then ignite its thrusters and place Goddard 1 in a higher permanent orbit around 300-350 km altitude and the scientific experiments will begin,” states the website.

After that, if everything were to work as intended, Goddard 2 would fall to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere and Goddard 1 would “carry radio-relay equipment in order to enable people in countries with restricted/censured internet access to reach the Net without restrictions.”

The group hopes to send robotic missions to the Moon by spring of next year, with even more ambitious goals beyond that, as funding, time, and talent allow. For now, though, they are just beginning.

Is DIY spaceflight an effective way forward? Copenhagen Suborbitals and the SpaceChain Space Program are two groups to watch.

Video courtesy of Copenhagen Suborbitals



Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor whose primary work currently is writing technical white papers, contributing to SFI, and working on a speculative fiction novel that she hopes to have published soon. Rae wanted an opportunity to report on the various space-related events in and around Florida's Space Coast and approached SFI's founder about the possibility. Rae now covers an array of subjects for our growing website.

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