Sending ashes into space
Now for something that’s a little out of this world - literally! How would you feel about having your ashes scattered in space? Ascension Flights is an organisation seeking to provide exactly this service. To find out more, Izzie Clarke found out why from co-founder and engineer Chris Rose.
Chris - Space inspires awe and wonder in so many people. I think the reason for that is because essentially it is so vast and humans want to explore the unknown and it’s a kind of area that can never truly be explored, so we have a hotspot for space, and I think having your ashes scattered in space really does have a lovely ring to it.
Izzie - Talk us through the science. How are you getting ashes into space and what happens after they’ve been scattered?
Chris - The motivator for getting things high above the Earth and into space that we adopt is very large balloons. Now rockets are very understood in that these can travel very long distances but they need a lot of expensive fuel onboard, a lot of kinetic energy to get it high. It’s quite a violent process and it’s quite a short lived process.
Balloons, on the other hand, offer us the opportunity to have a very tranquil, very controlled ascent over a longer period and that gives us some spectacular results all the same. We can use these to get well into near space - up to 50 kilometres above the Earth so you can see the blackness of space, the thin blue line of the atmosphere, and the curvature of the Earth before the ashes are actually scattered.
Izzie - So this balloon takes the ashes up and then how are they actually then released?
Chris - On board our payload, if you like, which contains our very specifically engineered scattering mechanism which I’ll discuss the details of in just a moment. But the balloon progresses through the atmosphere on its journey into space by using a gas, in this case helium or hydrogen, and the density difference in this gas gives us our buoyancy, so what the balloon is essentially trying to do is to rise up. It’s just when you take a capsule with the some air in under water, it’s trying to rise up above that medium that surrounds it and essentially sit on top of the atmosphere. When it does get into space it no longer has that duality of gases and different density differences to continue on its journey.
It expands throughout its ascent through the atmosphere to the point where when it does indeed burst because it can’t stretch any more, it's going to be bigger than a house. We’re talking close to 15 to 20 metres in diameter so very, very large. Now this is taking all our sensitive recording equipment: our control systems, our tracking equipment because we need to relocate everything after the payload returns to Earth and, of course, our scattering mechanism that contains the ashes.
This mechanism is understanding how high it is above the Earth by talking to satellites and as soon as it reaches its lower threshold, which we programme at an altitude the wish the scattering process to begin. It then tells itself to open up and begin the scattering process. The reason this has taken us a long time and we’ve taken much care to put the engineering in to get it right is because we don’t want this to be ashes just released and above the Earth projected as a sort of big conglomerate. What we want is a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing scattering process that lasts for as long as possible. And essentially looks beautiful but also allows the ashes to be dispersed as widely as possible above the Earth.
Izzie - How long does that entire journey take?
Chris - For an entire flight from the release to the burst, to the landing of the payload again on Earth is about 2 hours 40 minutes. The majority of that is the ascent itself. We opt for about 5 metres per second ascent rate. We obviously take a lot of care to get the maths right and run simulations so we can see exactly what the payload path will be taking, where it will burst, and where is should land again.
The return journey of the payload: essentially there is no atmosphere there to act against the payload or the parachute. So the descent itself is about half an hour because it’s going to be falling at about 300 miles per hour, maybe closer to 250 miles per hour depending on the conditions because, essentially, there’s nothing there to slow it down. But, rest assured, when the payload and the parachute do get down into the troposphere, where the weather systems are, this will slow to a nice gentle descent rate and land where we calculate in an area that’s appropriate.
Izzie - Isn’t this just all falling back to Earth and does that count as pollution? Is there a risk involved with that because aren’t people just essentially breathing in someone’s scattered ashes?
Chris - When we scatter ashes there are sort of loose legislation around what should be done. Although some of these are legalities and some are suggestions the common sense thing is not to scatter ashes in public areas. As you can appreciate, we are very far removed from a public area because we’re actually scattering these in space, so we couldn’t really be abiding by the rules any more than that. But, what happens to the ashed after we have scattered them? Well, these get so dispersed throughout the winds. You could have portions of the ashes being carried in through atmospheric currents to other countries. So, essentially, people being able to quantify and presence of the ash or experience them on any level on the Earth is pretty much statistically impossible.