In a quiet field to the north of Sheffield we are about to make history by sending the first-ever Audi into space. And yes, it’s a red R8 supercar, if you were wondering.
How is this possible? Well, it might be time to mention a few caveats: the Audi R8 in question is a 1:43 scale model of the car for starters, and ‘space’ is actually the high stratosphere – about 20-30 miles high. That’s three times as high as Mount Everest and way above the ozone layer, so still pretty spacey – but don’t take our word for it, listen instead to Dan Blaney. Dan is an engineer at Sent Into Space, a local start-up that specialises in launching objects using helium-filled weather balloons, and he’s helping us with our project.
‘During the flight, we will still technically remain within the Earth’s atmosphere,’ explains Dan. ‘But if you think about it, that’s really far out. At that altitude you get incredible space imagery such as the curvature of the Earth and the blue ring of the ozone. Plus there’s no firm boundary to where outer space actually starts, so you’re not going to get into trouble with the lawyers for making such a claim.’
But what’s the point? Firstly, our little stunt is riding on the back of a genuine scientific experiment, helping the guys from Sent into Space track data and get a better understanding of how high-altitude winds work. Then our second goal is to highlight the fact that Audi is about to take part in a real space mission: in 2018, two Audi lunar rovers will be sent to the Moon in order to take high-resolution video imagery and help scientists understand more about our planet’s satellite.
So, after filling our helium weather balloon, we attach the R8 to a special payload that carries the measuring instruments and cameras, as well as the landing parachute that will enable us to recover everything in one piece. Then we release the balloon and watch it rapidly float upwards. Dan has run some simulation flights on his computer, and expects the flight to take two hours – but it’s hard to be exact.
We track the flight in an Audi Q5 using the balloon’s signal-emitting beacons, which link up with a laptop that Dan is operating from the front seat of the car. While we are driving he is giving live updates on the flight, including information about location and altitude.
To begin with, the balloon travels due east as it climbs. After reaching an altitude of 42.8km somewhere roughly above Hull, the balloon bursts and starts to come down. It is pushed north-west by the wind and ends up descending over the Howardian Hills north of York.
Suddenly Dan shouts at us to stop, and we see an orange parachute pass over us and land in a field a few hundred yards away. We park and sprint over to the spot. On impact with the ground the model has sustained some slight damage to the wing mirror, but other than that it is intact. It appears that it was put together with the same dedication to quality and durability that all Audis are made with.
The all-important footage is on the camera’s memory card, and we hurry to load it onto the computer. Before long an image appears on the screen as solid proof of our success: a shining red Audi R8 floating in the sky, on the boundary between the sheer blackness of space and the benign blue curvature of planet earth.
Ingolstadt: Mission accomplished.