Out of this world


The astonishing photo (above) is real, not something produced by photoshop. It was taken last Friday by Cambridge University Spaceflight, a team of students who have entered a competition to send a low cost rocket into space. It shows one of my children's science fiction books, Dark Visitor, held out against a black sky with the curved earth below. That blue shimmer you see along the earth's curvature is the atmosphere.

The photo was one of thousands taken during a dawn launch of their balloon Nova 8. They were testing new telemetry and tracking systems, all highly successful as it turned out. There were also several small cameras taking still and video pictures. The project calls for a rocket to be launched from a balloon at its top altitude, and to reach 100km high with its small payload. In July the team twice broke the altitude record for an amateur balloon; typically they reach about 33.25km, so the rocket will have a head start without atmospheric resistance.

I find it exhilarating to find such a spirit of adventure and enterprise in a British university. Space has been largely the domain of governments. Burt Rutan changed that by winning the Ansari X-Prize with SpaceShipOne. Its budget of $25m was tiny compared to NASA, but here are students reaching into space with a shoestring. Their budget is in the low thousands., and they use their ingenuity and problem-solving skills to reach into space with it. It's exciting to see that a culture of regulation and playing it safe has not blunted the limitless aspiration so essential if humankind is to continue to progress in the future.