A high-altitude balloon company wants to open a new market at the edge of space

World View Enterprises, a private company that plans to sell hot air balloon rides to the edge of spaceannounced the grand opening of its new headquarters and joint spaceport in Tucson, Arizona.

The new facility will soon launch World View’s unmanned high-altitude balloons, which could be a low-cost alternative to launching payloads into space, company officials say. Balloons can carry instruments and equipment that could, for example, be used to continuously observe severe weather or natural disasters. The balloon could also carry equipment for scientific research, communications, remote sensing and many other potential applications.

The new Spaceport Tucson was built specifically to launch high-altitude balloons and includes a 700-foot-wide (200-meter) launch pad. The spaceport is owned by Pima County (where it is located) but is operated by World View Enterprises, which now has its headquarters attached to the spaceport. World View employees have already begun work on the new digs, and the first uncrewed launches from Spaceport Tucson are expected to take place in the coming months, company representatives told Space.com. [World View’s Near-Space Balloon Rides in Pictures]

“He’s really the only one [facility] in the world that was built for the sole purpose of flying into the stratosphere,” said Jane Poynter, co-founder and CEO of World View Enterprises, at a press conference yesterday (February 23) to announce the grand opening.

The company also plans to eventually offer crewed balloon flights that will take passengers to a maximum altitude of around 100,000 feet (30,000 m), where it is possible to see the curvature of the Earth and the darkness of the sky. ‘space. World View has not currently announced when it will conduct its first crewed launches.

A stratospheric balloon-making table in the new World View Enterprises headquarters is more than a tenth of a mile (528 feet, 160 meters) long. (Image credit: Courtesy of World View Enterprises)

Stratospheric satellites

The four co-founders of World View’ Enterprises spoke at the press conference about the untapped potential of the stratosphere. The commercial airline industry generates billions of dollars a year using the region of the atmosphere down to about 55,000 feet (16,000 meters), said former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, co-founder of World View and Director of Flight Crew Operations. . Above about 500,000 feet (152,000 meters), satellites are now widespread and the commercial space industry continues to flourish. But most of the stratosphere — between about 55,000 and 165,000 feet above Earth — remains underutilized. There’s very little air in the stratosphere (a limit for airplanes) and it would be extremely difficult to orbit the Earth at such a low altitude, Kelly said.

“Billions of dollars spent in the atmosphere, hundreds of billions of dollars spent orbiting the Earth. But in the stratosphere, virtually nothing,” Kelly said. “So that’s where this technology, using balloons at high altitudes in the stratosphere, has basically, at this point, with the opening of this building, opened up a whole new world of business and aviation.”

World View will use its new facility to manufacture its stratospheric balloons and assemble the spacecraft that are attached to the balloons, as well as for payload integration and flight mission control.

A look inside the new World View Enterprises headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. (Image credit: Courtesy of World View Enterprises)

The company will also use the facility to develop its new unmanned vehicles, called Stratollites, a name that combines “stratosphere” and “satellites.” Stratollites can reach maximum elevations of around 150,000 feet (45,000 meters) and remain above the same region of Earth for days, weeks or months, according to the company’s website. This means Stratollites could provide consistent monitoring of severe weather or natural disasters, combat zones and shipping routes affected by ice currents, company representatives said at the press conference.

“We want to focus [on] where we really stand out from whatever other people are doing,” Poynter said.

For example, hurricanes are monitored as they grow and begin to move, and this monitoring is done in such a way that scientists cannot keep sensors directly above the storm for long periods of time. periods, according to Poynter.

“If you have a Stratollite over a hurricane…you can, with great accuracy, we think, figure out where that hurricane is going because we can track it all the way and get full hurricane data as it goes. and as it grows and is on the move,” Poynter said. Providing people with more accurate trajectories could mean getting people out of harm’s way, but also avoiding unnecessary evacuations, she said. declared.

“We really have something unique,” World View co-founder and company chief scientist Alan Stern said at the press conference. (Stern is also a principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto.) “I think there will be a lot of demand,” he said. “I think it’s hard to predict exactly where that demand will come from.”

Compared to a traditional satellite, Stratollites are cheaper to launch and their closer proximity to the ground means they can provide better image resolution of the ground, World View officials said.

“Last year we really focused on developing the Stratollite technology,” Poynter said. “This year, we’re really focused on rolling out demonstrations with very specific instruments.”

Yesterday, World View also announced the completion of a Stratollite mission, in conjunction with Ball Aerospace, which demonstrated “early capabilities for remote sensing applications from the stratosphere,” according to a World View statement. The Stratollite vehicle, equipped with Ball Aerospace instruments, reached a maximum altitude of 76,900 feet (23,400 meters) and was able to observe the ground with a resolution of about 16 feet (5 m) – accurate enough to “track individual vehicles on the ground,” Stern said.

The collaboration with Ball Aerospace “paves the way for future flights delivering higher-resolution multi-spectral sensors for applications including public safety, homeland security, and civic asset mapping and monitoring,” World representatives said. View in the press release.

“So we’re real; we’re out there; we’re flying,” Stern said. “We fly for clients and for our own needs.” [Giant Balloon Trips to Near-Space: Q&A with World View CEO Jane Poynter]

The exterior of the new World View Enterprises headquarters and Spaceport Tucson. (Image credit: Courtesy of World View Enterprises)

A hot air balloon ride to the edge of space

World View already sells tickets to ride on passenger balloons that will reach altitudes of around 100,000 feet. The company previously announced that it would begin customer flights in 2017, but no specific date has been announced.

“We will definitely fly when it’s good and safe to fly,” Poynter said. “But we are making a lot of progress in many areas, from operations to the design and manufacture of the balls.”

Poynter and some of the other World View representatives said there were overlaps and redundancies between unmanned and manned vehicles, so the work that was done before the launch of Stratollites fed into the flight schedule. company’s manned space.

Kelly spoke at the press conference about the “life-changing” experience of seeing Earth at such a high altitude.

“To have [the Earth] like a round ball in the dark of space really changes your idea and your thinking about our planet and humanity,” Kelly said. “So as a company, we are really looking forward to opening this opportunity to thousands of people around the world. world.”

Currently, tickets for a World View balloon ride are $75,000 per seat. Poynter said she believes the price may rise initially due to high demand, but over time the company expects the price to drop “quite significantly.” Poynter said she hopes to see the cost fall into “the $25,000 to $30,000 range.”

In January 2016, the Pima County Council approved the construction of Spaceport Tucson and assigned operating responsibilities to World View Enterprises. The county also offered to spend $15 million on the facility in exchange for 20 years of lease payments from World View. The payment sparked a lawsuit against the county alleging that the board “violated the state’s gift clause by extending its credit to a private company with no public utility,” according to an article in the Arizona Daily Star.

World View is not named in the lawsuit, company representatives said at the press conference. When asked if the outcome of the lawsuit could affect World View’s lease of the spaceport, Taber MacCallum, co-founder and chief technology officer of World View, said: “I’m sure there is will have a fair resolution if there is an issue, so it’s really not a significant concern.”

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.