Tim Furniss/LONDON

Some people might think it a rather weird way of making money out of space, but business is business. First, people's ashes were sent into orbit; now the Celestis company, based in Houston, Texas, is inviting people to send samples of their hair into the Universe.

Celestis is part of a group promoting the hair-into-space service, called Encounter 2001, the mission of which is to fly hair from as many as 4 million customers, out of the solar system via a Jupiter fly-by and into deep space - perhaps "to another star", says the company.

If enough customers, paying just $50 each, can be found, the project could earn a revenue of $225 million, easily covering the cost of the craft and its $12 million piggyback launch on an Ariane 5 from Kourou, French Guiana. About $500,000 of financing has been secured for the project, says Celestis.

The company has been promoting "space burials" since 1986, when it signed a deal with the then Space Services for launches on the Conestoga booster. This project never materialised, although one Conestoga was eventually flown by EER Systems on a separate mission - and exploded.

Celestis now has a proven track record, however, having completed two space burials, in November 1996 and February this year, and business is looking good. Celestis 01 was air-launched piggyback on an Orbital Sciences (OSC) Pegasus XL flight originating from the Canary Islands, and contained the cremated remains of 24 people, including those of Gene Roddenbury, the creator of the television series Star Trek, and of 1960s icon Timothy O'Leary.

"Celestis has established its service as being routinely available," says company president Chan Tysor. Celestis 02 rode piggyback on an OSC Taurus booster, launched from Vandenberg AFB, California, and carrying as prime payload two Orbcomm data communications satellites. It carried the remains of 30 people. Celestis 03 will fly aboard another Pegasus XL originating from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this summer. Celestis offers "-a uniquely meaningful approach to honouring and remembering family, friends and loved ones, while simultaneously helping to open a new space frontier", claims the company.

The private company offers to launch a 7g sample of a person's cremated remains in a lipstick-sized, securely sealed capsule, inscribed with the deceased's name and personal message. Customers pay $4,800 per person, "-comparable to most conventional funeral services", says Celestis.


The capsules are placed in a honeycomb-like arrangement inside a special carrier attached to the upper stage of the launch vehicle. The stage and its satellite payload enters orbit, the remains remaining on the stage. They remain in orbit for between 18 months and 10 years, depending on the altitude of the orbit, and then re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, vapourising "-in a final tribute, scattering the remains in an environmentally benign manner", says Tysor.

On average, at least two Celestis flights are now scheduled each year, "-ensuring regular access to space for this service". Part of the revenue from each sale goes to entrepreneurial space enterprises, educational foundations and other charities.

Celestis also offers a less spectacular service called Starburst, in which the payload is launched into space aboard a sounding rocket on a suborbital flight. At its apogee of at least 50km, the payload can be released to vapourise upon re-entry. Alternatively, the payload can be recovered and the contents returned to loved ones for subsequent disposition.

Space remains the domain of the few (actually 378 space travellers so far); with Celestis, the company claims, "-the dream can finally be realised-a final chance to become part of the Universe, by being one with the Universe".

Becoming part of the Universe is the theme of the Encounter 2001 offering. Celestis says: "Encounter 2001 is the first opportunity for all of us to reach out beyond the solar system with our dreams, thoughts and essence."

The idea is derived from an originally conceived Voyager service that offered flights into Earth-moon system orbit, and in which the Celestis satellite would constitute the primary payload for the mission. The Voyager would be launched on a long-term orbit around the Earth-moon system that would remain stable for millions of years.

The more recently introduced Encounter spacecraft will be propelled towards Jupiter after an Ariane 5 launch of two commercial communications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit in October 2001. Using a "gravity assist", the Encounter 2001 craft will be accelerated beyond the solar system and into deep space. It will be aimed at a part of Universe in which "-NASA has found the potential for planets", Celestis says.

The 160kg spacecraft, built by Encounter participant AeroAstro, will carry its own liquid propellant boost engine, and the strands of hair - plus photos and messages on high density compact discs. Up to three to six hairs per customer will be flown, cut to about 25mm and including the root, which contains the DNA.

To pre-announce the hair-raising flight to the Universe, a radio message will be sent in December into the beyond, announcing that the hair is on its way and giving the names of the "passengers". Human locks will be accepted, not pets' hair. "This is for humans only," says Celestis.

Source: Flight International