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This rocket-powered toy plane will soon jet off to stratosphere

updated 7:10 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
  • A 3D printed model airplane will reach between 25 and 30 kilometers
  • The airplane will launch from the Virgin Galactic spaceport in New Mexico
  • It will be lifted by a helium-filled balloon and then powered by a rocket engine

(CNN) -- The first 3D-printed toy plane will soon jet off to the stratosphere.

The rocket-powered airplane will reach an altitude of between 25 and 30 kilometers (15 to 18 miles) -- three times higher than the cruising height of commercial airplanes.

"Without doubt, this is the most complicated amateur high-altitude mission ever undertaken," said Lester Haines, head of the Register's Special Projects Bureau that is behind the project.

The components of the airplane have been designed by postgraduate students at the University of Southampton and produced using a 3D printer.

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"We don't know quite what will happen when the big day arrives, but one thing's for sure -- it's going to be quite a show," Heines, who also holds the Guinness World Record for the highest launch of a paper aeroplane, added.

It took the team four years, thousands of volunteer hours, and $60,000 from crowdfunding, to complete the "Lohan." The nickname is short for "Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator" and, its inventors say, a reference to the Hollywood star Lindsey Lohan.

The rocket will launch from the Virgin Galactic spaceport in New Mexico later this year.

A helium-filled meteorological balloon will lift the spaceplane to around 20 kilometers above the ground. Once it reaches that altitude, a rocket motor will fire and push the plane up to 25 kilometers.

"Its going to be doing some very smart things; collecting data from numerous sources, making decisions in real time, to form its trajectory and landing," said Guy Lipscombe from database software firm EXASOL, which sponsored the project.

Once at the right altitude, the plane will switch to autopilot and glide back to earth, guided by a built-in GPS navigation system.

At the end of its journey, the spaceplane will crash to the ground -- as it has no landing gear.