New Inexpensive Method of Space Exploration: Launching Mobile Satellites from Balloons and 3D Printed Rockets

Stofiel Aerospace is developing a balloon-launched, 3D printed rocket which is paving the way for cheap and effective mobile satellite launching.
Maverick Baker

With an increasing demand for private, mobile, and on-demand satellite launches, aerospace company Stofiel Aerospace developed a balloon-based launch system capable of launching a satellite for cheap and from virtually anywhere that permits flight.

The company claims they can launch satellites 25% cheaper than anyone else.

But their design is not only cheaper, it also requires less engineering and can be launched from virtually any corner of the globe - including from parking lots - if the FAA will allow it, says Brian Stofiel, CEO of Stofiel Aerospace.

The launch system relies on a collection of innovative, though not necessarily attractive, solutions which are offering the cheapest options for space exploration.

“We use 70% less fuel, and there is probably 20% less engineering. So the savings are not just fuel savings” Stofiel told Interesting Engineering.

Developing a Cheap Mobile Satellite Launch System

At the moment, the company is a quarter of the way to their goal of completing a successful launch, orbit, and return of a space vehicle.

“We’ve got the rockets figured out. We’ve [also] got the drop drone - Artemis - figured out. Now we are moving on to the guidance system and everything else, ” he added.

Artemis is a drop-drone which is dropped from the balloon, designed to return data about the flight and upper atmosphere. The navigation system and the return vehicle, Hyperion, are still in development. But Stofiel claims it won't be long until all the technology is ready to launch a satellite into low-earth orbit.

“We will be orbital by December 2019” claims Stofiel, an ambitious plan for a company less than a decade old.

Once in orbit, Stofiel Aerospace will advance beyond research and development to begin to offer public services and regular space deliveries.

Launching Satellites on a Rockoon

The Hermes rockoon – a balloon-launched rocket, is helping take Stofiel Aerospace beyond the horizon and into orbit.

A rockoon is a solid-fuel rocket which is not launched from the ground, but rather, it is carried high into the atmosphere by a gas-filled balloon. Then, upon reaching altitude, it detaches from the balloon before igniting and taking-off toward the stars.

World's First Rockoon - the Deacon
Source: GDK/Wikimedia Commons

In the image above, one of the world's first rockoons takes-off towards space.

Each satellite launch system is custom engineered to the specification of the payload. The satellite delivery system, called the Boreas Launch System, comes shipped in a crate containing a balloon, the Hermes 3D printed rocket, and optionally the Hyperion, a small satellite return system. In action, the balloon is filled, lifting the rocket 30 kilometers into the atmosphere. Then, the rocket detaches before igniting and taking it to a low earth orbit of around 230 kilometers up.

3D Printing Hermes Rocket - Custom Built to Order

Launched high above the ground, the Hermes rocket does not need to power through the lower and thicker layers of the atmosphere - one of the greatest barriers to space flight.

High in the atmosphere, there is less air resistance, and subsequently, less pressure the rocket must fight against. The rocket structures undergo far less force and so, can be engineered with lighter materials, creating more savings in fuel and time.

Though the rockoon is not a new strategy in and of itself, Stofiel Aerospace has integrated it along with a few other key technologies to bring forward an entirely new solution for cheaper and more accessible space flight.

Along with the rockoon, Stofiel Aerospace is integrating another core technology further reducing the production times and cost of the Hermes rocket engines.

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3D printed rocket engine - Hermes Rocket
Source: Stofiel Aerospace

The technology in question - a new 3D printing strategy incorporating old printing plastic with a new heat-shield coating. The system is creating the cheapest and most effective solution to space exploration yet.

3D Printing Rocket Parts from Plastic

Traditional rocket nozzles are made from metals like copper alloys and steel, materials which can be notoriously time consuming and expensive to manufacture into rocket parts. Moreover, they require more engineering and often times, complex cooling systems to prevent them from melting during the long ascent through the atmosphere.

Plastic, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to shape - especially with a 3D printer. But of course, the environment a rocket engine must endure far exceeds the limitations of any unassisted plastic.

However, treated in the right way, plastic can be transformed into a super-material able to withstand thousands of degrees - and the launch of a satellite. The plastic rockets contain no metal parts and can be mass produced and built to the specification of the payload. But without the ingenious heat-shield coating, the engine would be useless.

Hermes Rocket Heat Shield Coating 

The engineers behind Stofiel Aerospace have developed a proprietary coating which transforms the 3D plastic rocket nozzles into a hard ceramic material capable of withstanding temperatures in excess of 4000° Celsius. The transformation happens when the rockets fire, prompting a reaction between the materials.

“The proprietary heat coating allows PLA plastic, that normally melts at 200° C, to survive a composite rocket operational cycle and withstand +4000° C” claims Stofiel Aerospace.

When the rockets finish firing, what is left is no longer plastic, but a hard ceramic material.

The reaction between the plastic and the heat shielding is also endothermic, a reaction which absorbs energy. During the transformation, heat energy from inside the combustion chamber is absorbed through the plastic and heat coating reaction, reducing its overall operational temperatures.

“What we’ve developed is a rocket that we can scale to the payload. We can mobile launch it and we can mass produce it.”

Launching so close to space also means the rockets will not burn as long, further reducing the amount of engineering required for development. At such high altitudes, temperatures can plummet to -50° Celsius, precooling and subsequently protecting the rocket from the extreme heat of the exhaust. 

Energy from the carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the reaction, is also recaptured in the thrust system.

“What we’ve developed is a rocket that we can scale to the payload. We can mobile launch it and we can mass produce it.” Brian Stofiel, CEO, and founder of Stofiel Aerospace told IE.

The Boreas Launch System

Together, the rockoon and 3D plastic rocket nozzle treated with a special heat-resistant coating make up two parts of the Boreas Launch System - a three-part small satellite launch system.

The third part is the Hyperion - a small satellite return vehicle.

Returning a payload to earth is notoriously difficult. The friction generated as large or fast objects plummet through the atmosphere is enough to incinerate most spacecraft long before they reach the ground.

While some satellites are designed to burn up upon reentry, sometimes it can be beneficial to return expensive equipment and biological samples intact to study them further on Earth.

“If a biological lab wants to get their experiment directly into their laboratory, we fly over the parking lot, deploy a parachute and drop the drone into the parking lot. We are talking about 5-10 minutes from orbit to the lab. And that really changes the sciences that they can do” claims Stofiel.

Other Satellite Systems are Over Complicated

SpaceX, an industry leader in satellite launching, has the ability to return payloads by landing their reusable space capsule on barges in the middle of the ocean. But the return vehicle is expensive and requires many extra layers of engineering to incorporate a reusable design.

Other reentry vehicles often take a plunge through the atmosphere burning up and slowing down before pulling a parachute. The landings are rough though, sometimes exceeding 10 g's - 10 times Earth’s normal gravity.

At the moment, parachuting payloads back to earth is the most efficient and effective way to return equipment and samples. But the landings can be somewhat unpredictable and can blow many kilometers off-course, forcing most return space vehicles to land in desolate locations - typically in the middle of the ocean or in the deserts of Kazakhstan - a major inconvenience for scientists attempting to recover sensitive payloads.

But, the Boreas Launch system does not suffer from the same limitations.

“We can scale [a rocket] to a single payload which is unlike most rockets right now where you’re a secondary payload on a big rocket. You have a 30-pound payload, I build a rocket that flies 30 pounds”

Returning Payloads and Satellites with the Hyperion Satellite Return Vehicle

Stofiel Aerospace is addressing the remote and rough landing problem of other return vehicles with an innovative vehicle of their own - deemed the Hyperion - a small satellite return system. The Hyperion can be used to precisely place a satellite in a discrete orbit, but it can also be used to safely return valuable payloads back to Earth.

A single Hermes rocket will be able to carry with it three Hyperion return spacecraft, each containing many smaller satellites. 

With the ability to change its pitch, the Hyperion return vehicle can adjust its flight and can take advantage of atmospheric skipping. As the name would suggest, the Hyperion travels fast enough and is light enough to skip off of the edge of the atmosphere. The degree of control allows it to precisely navigate over Earth before initiating a descent and landing.

Impressively, the Hyperion return vehicle can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land in under 1 g - a massive achievement which will allow scientists to recover more sensitive data than ever before.

Eventually, Stofiel would like to see the delivery system return a payload from a satellite to the front door of a company in mere minutes.

Developing a Satellite Launch System by Learning through Trial and Error

According to Stofiel, the company is centered around prototyping and field experimentation. Rather than getting held up on constantly perfecting and complicating space technologies, the company learns and progresses by learning through failure, significantly speeding up prototyping and design.

“Complexity in the industry is what makes space flight hard. We understand how to do space flight,” tells Stofiel. He adds “the industry is biased to complexity.”

Stofiel suggests scientists naturally tend towards complex solutions. Many times, engineers overcomplicate designs as new solutions are proposed and integrated, often creating more points of failure.

Stofiel Aerospace, on the other hand, lives by the “Fail fast, fail often” approach of learning from field experimentation and failure instead of rigorous study and theoretical design. Their solution is radical, but it is proving to be far more successful far sooner than most anticipated, including Stofiel himself.

“We live by the 'fail fast, fail often' method of development. We believe that this method is good science AND good business.” Stofiel explained.

Where the Company is at Now

Stofiel Aerospace has already completed many significant milestones, including developing a functional 3D printed plastic rocket. But they are continuing to progress - and have big plans for the near future.

“We are a month and a half away from breaking the carmen line – the edge of space - at 4000 mph.”

Soon, the company will break the barrier to space, putting them in their final stage of development before rolling their service out to the public.

Benefits of a Rockoon Launch System

“We’d like to see 1000 missions a year – 3 per day.”

The Hermes rocket, coupled with the balloon delivery method, can deliver a 15 - 250 kg payload to low-earth orbit with the perspectively low cost of just US $20,000 a kilogram, $5000 cheaper than any other solution available on the market.

The idea is quickly taking off, and according to Stofiel himself, the company will begin making regular deliveries in December 2019.

“We’d like to see 1000 missions a year – 3 per day.” Said Stofiel.

The Ugly Solution to On-demand Satellite Launching

Having the ability to launch a satellite system in just a couple hours opens endless opportunities for humanitarian efforts.

Mobile satellite launch systems could be installed in downtown cores near at-risk regions on standby ready to inflate and launch at a moments notice. Within two hours, a dedicated satellite can be up and live over a disaster area with the ability to provide thermal imaging in forest fire regions, communication uplinks for earthquakes and other disasters, as well as provide live images to help in the relief and rescue of people on the ground.

Strapping a small rocket to a massive weather balloon is hardly a glamorous solution. But, it is a solution which should not be overlooked.

“There is a lot of opportunities we see that are not exploited because nobody can offer on-demand servicing.”

The solution is cheap, efficient, and effective, making it a more practical satellite launching service for small to medium-sized satellites and other payloads.

The Most Affordable Mobile Satellite Launching Service to Date

Stofiel’s rockoon solution to satellite launching offers one of, if not, the most efficient and affordable mobile satellite launching service to date.


They are pioneering mobile satellite launching and making it more accessible for civilian use.

“It’s not glorious. There isn’t that sexiness of that 'I’ve got a big rocket'”.
Says Stofiel. But the solution works, and soon, it will be the fastest, cheapest, and most efficient way to launch a satellite.

Soon, the company will be living up to its motto -

“You bring us a load on Monday, it’s in orbit by Friday.”

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