Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lighter than Air Craft for Orbital and Sub-Orbital Duty

The above vision for lighter than air-to-orbit, from JP Aerospace, has been circulating for 7 or 8 years now.

So far, the closest that JPAerospace has come to slipping the surly bonds of Earth, was with its Tandem balloon aircraft, which reached an altitude of 18 miles recently. Not so bad for a $30,000 project.

This is the JPAerospace Tandem launch, seen from multiple camera angles. The view from space is tacked on to the end of the video.

To become a reality, JPAerospace's "city in space" and lighter than air orbital launch, will need some big money backing. The US defense establishment is developing lighter than air observation platforms to be based at the edge of space, but there is no indication that the Pentagon wants to achieve orbit using lighter-than-air craft.

Spanish company Zero2Infinity is developing a lighter-than-air sub-orbital tourism concept, called inbloon. The goal is to take tourists to the edge of space inside a pressurised capsule, and allow them to stay there for almost 2 hours, appreciating the splendour of the planet below.
Zero2Infinity, based in Barcelona, Spain, hopes to start taking people up to near-space as early as 2013. Balloons cannot go as high as rockets, but in theory at least they should be far safer, since passengers won't be sitting on tonnes of explosives. Their environmental impact is also far lower than that of smoke-belching rockets.

López-Urdiales was inspired by his father, an atmospheric physicist who was involved in sending probes to Titan and Mars. "I've always seen him working, seen all the excitement of years of work going into a flight. That's what got me excited about space in general," he says. Then, in 2000, his father told him about how the Huygens probe that explored Titan was tested by dropping a prototype from a balloon around 40 kilometres up. "After our conversation, I thought if there's going to be space tourism, then let's try this way," he says.

There is no doubt that it is possible, because it has been done many times before. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than a dozen crewed balloons journeyed to near-space. In 1957, for instance, Joe Kittinger of the US air force ascended to a height of 29 kilometres in a capsule attached to a helium balloon. He enjoyed the ride so much that when ordered to descend, he replied: "Come and get me."

Zero2Infinity hopes to spread that joy to the civilian population. The company has carried out several test flights of uncrewed balloons, and earlier this year got the funding needed to carry out its first flight carrying people.

The plan is to use a massive helium "bloon", as the company likes to call it, to carry a pressurised capsule with space for two pilots and two passengers up to 34 kilometres above the Earth. You can book now - but at €110,000 per ticket, you'll need a little spare cash. _NewScientist

The video below juxtaposes the plans of Richard Branson's suborbital space tourism flights via rocket, beside the "inbloon" lighter than air suborbital tourism concept.



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