‘We can offer people the whole world’

by ANTONY CLAY

Ashes scattered into Near Space by Aura Flights

THE idea of being buried in space may sound like a fanciful one. Something perhaps from science fiction.

To be scattered into the great void is an attractive, poignant and even beautiful concept but one which most of us would see as impossible.

Not at all. A Sheffield company is leading the way to make the idea of having one’s remains scattered into space an attainable reality.

Many have already sent their loved one’s remains up into the edge of space – and the firm’s hi-tech method of final despatch is getting ever more popular.

Alex Baker and Chris Rose

People, it seems, have new ideas about what they want after death – and the tech available to help them fulfil their dreams either for themselves or for their loved ones is already here.

Aura Flights has sent more than 1,000 sets of remains into space and is offering its services to more and more people all the time.

And who would not be attracted by the idea of having one’s ashes scattered 30 kilometres above the earth’s surface? To have those ashes dissipated across the globe to eventually fall as snow or rain?

Aura Flight’s scattering mechanism

The thought of attaining a great sense of final freedom is certainly an enticing one. As one of the directors, Dr Chris Rose, said: “We can offer people the whole world.”

Aura Flights, based just off the Sheffield Parkway, is the trading name of Sent Into Space Limited which has been sending non-human objects into what is known as Near Space since 2011.

But directors Chris and Dr Alex Baker struck upon the idea of allowing people to have ashes carried up and released, developing an intelligent scatter vessel lifted by specially-designed balloons. The scattering is then recorded and loved ones get a record of the dispersal of the ashes.

There is a dedicated launch site in the Sheffield area though alternative sites are also available across the UK.

The business even had a go on TV’s Dragon’s Den, winning a cash backing offer from businesswoman Deborah Meaden though in the end the company decided not to pursue it.

Chris said that the ashes are released in a zone about 30 kilometres above the earth’s surface known as the stratosphere (we exist in the troposphere) which has temperatures of about minus 60 degrees centigrade and contains winds that scatter the ashes around the world very quickly. Indeed, before the scattering apparatus returns to earth just a few hours after launch, the ashes will be spread over the size of a continent.

A balloon carrying the ashes into space is released

The ashes then form the nuclei on which water vapour condenses to form rain or snow which then falls back to earth.

Chris said that the space burials have proved a hit with many people.

He said: “When we launched this I thought it would be just for the space geeks but we have done it for all types of people from many backgrounds. We have been surprised at the depth of the demographic.

“People have heard of burials at sea but not space burials. But space burials can be done very easily.

“You have more of a cathartic sense of release. It’s never really a sad energy or awkward energy. You can sense the anticipation when the release happens.

“It’s a total connection with nature, it offers the idea of moving on.

“We are not doing anything unnatural to the environment.

“It’s incredibly moving every time. We are there to offer our understanding and sympathy.”

A balloon is inflated

People aged from their teens up to their late 80s have had their ashes sent into Near Space by Aura Flights which offers packages to either send a single person’s ashes upwards or a small sample along with other people’s (though each are separate) in a combined, and less expensive, ascent.

The ascents are livestreamed and the vehicle tracked so that it can be recovered quickly so that a video record can be distributed to loved ones.

Chris and Alex, both University of Sheffield mechanical engineering graduates, have been sending items skywards for the firm Sent Into Space since 2011. These commercial operations have included sending up electronics and even a Jeep but missions developing visual technology spurred them into considering the idea for space burials.

“We thought that it would be quite an interesting use of the visuals we could offer which were often overlooked,” said Chris.

Planning the release

“We were putting cameras on a test platform on balloons to get as high as possible to do work for PR firms.

“But we always thought that Near Space would be a good place for ashes.”

So the engineering team of 13 set about creating a special vessel to carry and then distribute the ashes. It had to be big enough to carry a cargo of human ashes, be resilient to cope with the extreme environment up there and yet light enough to be lifted by a balloon.

Developing the tech took two years but now the vessel, made of special plastic, can release ashes gradually in a gentle adjustable flow to create a stunning halo effect for the attached camera to record.

Chris said that the whole process is carefully monitored and tracked and nothing has ever gone wrong. Stormy weather can delay the operation but the cameras and release vessels have always been recovered and the release of ashes always achieved.

The team has worked to make sure that every aspect of the space burials process works, using the firm’s own inventiveness and technology.

Chris said: “We are not a company that can survive with off-the-shelf stuff. It gives us creative freedom.”

Inflating a balloon

Chris said that the appearance on Dragon’s Den back in 2017 was an interesting experience and seen by the two directors as a great way to spread the word about the company’s work.

“It did not transform us overnight, but it made us a household name and cemented us as a professional service,” said Chris.

“We had a very positive experience on the TV show.”

But Chris said that the intention wasn’t just to offer a quirky service, but rather a serious option for people wanting something very different.

“We are not just a novel thing to do but would like to be considered alongside any other funeral option,” he said.

There has been interest in Aura Flight’s services from across the UK and beyond, with a lot of enquiries from Nordic countries in particular.

Organisations offering a more modern approach to the funeral business, such as online firm Dead Happy which caters for funeral wishes, has helped establish Aura Flights’s credentials, particularly with people wanting to organise their own post-life arrangements.

Chris said that burials have fallen out of favour somewhat over the years with cremations growing in popularity, the trend highlighted through the funeral choices of celebrities such as pop star David Bowie.

Planning a balloon release

The main launch site for the Aura Flights launches is at a special site at Worrall near Oughtibridge, north-east of Sheffield, where the firm has free launch clearance at any time from the aviation authorities.

Each launch is carefully managed so that it, according to Chris, “all runs like clockwork on the day”.

The weather is monitored to ensure there are no storms or rain and snow which could prove a problem and most launches go ahead as planned within a three to five day window. It is rare for a launch to be delayed more than twice.

The route for the tech is carefully planned so that when it lands again the chasedown vehicle can locate it quickly.

The biggest send-off that the company has provided, said Chris, was one for a Caribbean family who made the event a truly celebratory occasion.

“They were a spirited bunch. It was great,” said Chris.

Even animals have been sent up into space courtesy of Aura Flights.

“Pets are as important as family members to many people,” said Chris.

The atmospheric zone where ashes are released

He expects the business to develop. Sent Into Space now has the capability to lift objects up to four-and-a-half tonnes into space by balloon or rocket.

Aura Flights, Chris believes, will continue to grow in popularity as people opt for a different way to deal with the dearly departed.

“We want to hear from people what they want,” said Chris.

The future seems to be, pardon the pun, on the up for this unique South Yorkshire company which wants to bring the whole funeral business well and truly into the space age.

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