Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Space Travel Via Baloon


A Spanish entrepreneur wants to give you a glimpse of the black expanse of space and the curvature of the earth from a most unusual vantage point — a balloon.

José Mariano López-Urdiales, the founder of zero2infinity, is offering what he calls the “near-space” experience of viewing the planet and the space beyond it from 36 km [22 miles] above the earth. He hopes to have the first passengers aloft in the near-space vehicle called a “bloon” — the company doesn’t appear to be big on capital letters — by the middle of this decade.

That altitude is a long ways from the height of more than 100 km promised by Virgin Galactic and others developing suborbital space tourism vehicles. But López-Urdiales argues the 100-km definition of space is somewhat arbitrary and the view from 36 km offers essentially the same viewing experience as higher altitudes. The bright sun is surrounded by a black sky. The curvature of the earth is clearly visible, highlighted by the electric blue of the atmosphere just above the horizon. López-Urdiales says people were enjoying this view long before there were rockets.

“The first people who described the earth as a blue ball were not in rockets,” he says. “They were flying in balloons.”

The great appeal of zero2infinity’s concept is that you’ll enjoy the view for a couple of hours, as opposed to the handful of minutes you’ll experience flying beyond the atmosphere in a rocket. And without the rumble of a rocket, the ride will be serene.

“A balloon stays for a longer time than a ballistic parabola,” López-Urdiales notes. “A suborbital vehicle is limited by the laws of ballistics and only lasts a few minutes. It can only last so long where the sky is black and the view is beautiful.”

Passengers aboard the bloon “near-space ship” will spend five to six hours on their journey, including two hours at cruise altitude with the blackness of space above them and the curvature of the earth below.

López-Urdiales is an MIT-educated aerospace engineer who spent several years in the rocket industry, including stints at Boeing and the European Space Agency. In 2000, before Dennis Tito made the first space tourism flight, López-Urdiales first came up with the idea of using a balloon to take people high enough to enjoy a space-like view of the earth. He knew balloons had long been used to take people to high altitudes, but pioneering days of high-altitude balloon flights ended with the beginning of the rocket era. López-Urdiales points out it’s probably not a coincidence that the highest piloted flight in a balloon, 34.7 km, occurred in 1961, the same year Yuri Gagarin rocketed into space...

Bloon will carry passengers in a pod suspended beneath a large helium balloon, or sail, as it is called. The pod is 4.3 meters [13 feet, 8 inches] in diameter and has room for two pilots and four passengers. It will be pressurized and comfortable enough for passengers to wear normal clothes.

The balloon will spend a few hours rising to a cruising altitude of around 36 km, where the sail will be 129 meters [423 feet] in diameter. Why 36 km? Because at that height you can see the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth. López-Urdiales likes to point out there isn’t actually a line dividing the atmosphere and space. The United States long defined space as beginning at 50 miles [80km]. Today it is defined by most as beginning at 100 km, at what is called the Kármán Line. López-Urdiales notes it is no coincidence the definition is framed by our system of counting by tens because we have ten fingers.

“Following that logic, 64 km would be the limit of space in the world of the Simpsons,” he says, noting with tongue firmly in cheek that the Simpsons have eight fingers. “Then our 36 km is the limit of space on planet Dagobah, home to Jedi Master Yoda.”

Regardless, passengers will spend a few hours cruising silently 36 km above the earth before beginning their descent. As the sail is slowly vented, the pod descends until the sail separates from the pod. A parafoil is deployed to fly the pod back to earth...

The rides won’t be cheap. López-Urdiales says the full experience will cost 110,000 Euros — about $156,000 at today’s exchange rate. That’s cheaper than Virgin Galactic tickets, which will run $200,000 for a sub-orbital ride aboard SpaceShipTwo.

“In specific per-minute price when you get to look out the window, it’s much less expensive” López-Urdiales says.

Early flights are likely to happen in Spain, where the weather is nice and the company is based. But López-Urdiales says there are several places around the world that are viable locations for an bloon journey, and he hopes to offer the experience in many countries. The way he sees it, if people simply want the experience of blasting off, they’ll look elsewhere. And he’s fine with that.

“If somebody wants a rocket, they will probably not fly with us,” he says. “But if they want the view, they probably will.”

Travel to Near-Space in a 400-Foot Diameter Balloon
Jason Paur
August 12, 2011

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