Space

World View Enterprises near-space balloon flights to begin in 2016

World View Enterprises near-sp...
Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprises)
Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon capsule lifts free of Earth (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon capsule lifts free of Earth (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon, parasail, and capsule rise together through the clouds (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon, parasail, and capsule rise together through the clouds (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View capsule and its parawing hang below their gigantic lifting balloon (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View capsule and its parawing hang below their gigantic lifting balloon (Photo: World View Enterprises)
Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon capsule being towed out to the launch site (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon capsule being towed out to the launch site (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon capsule will be treated as a space vehicle by the FAA (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon capsule will be treated as a space vehicle by the FAA (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View capsule awaits launch (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View capsule awaits launch (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon at altitude, where a black sky and a curved horizon can be plainly seen (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon at altitude, where a black sky and a curved horizon can be plainly seen (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon capsule lifts free of Earth (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon capsule lifts free of Earth (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon, parasail, and capsule rise together through the clouds (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon, parasail, and capsule rise together through the clouds (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View capsule and its parawing hang below their gigantic lifting balloon (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View capsule and its parawing hang below their gigantic lifting balloon (Photo: World View Enterprises)
Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon capsule being towed out to the launch site (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon capsule being towed out to the launch site (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon capsule will be treated as a space vehicle by the FAA (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon capsule will be treated as a space vehicle by the FAA (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View capsule awaits launch (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View capsule awaits launch (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon at altitude, where a black sky and a curved horizon can be plainly seen (Photo: World View Enterprises)
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The World View balloon at altitude, where a black sky and a curved horizon can be plainly seen (Photo: World View Enterprises)

The newest entry in the fledgling space (or near-space) tourism sector will see passengers take a balloon ride to an altitude of 30 km (18.6 mi) from where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth. World View Enterprises has now obtained US Federal Aviation Administration approval for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US$75,000, and are projected to begin in 2016.

A mere ten years elapsed between the first demonstration of controlled powered manned flight and the first commercial passenger air route. Those of us around at the beginning of the Space Age expected (perhaps naively) a rather rapid transition to orbital hotels and flourishing bases or colonies on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System.

Instead, nearly 70 years have passed without making much visible progress toward such a future. As a result, people are seeking something to give them a taste of space. While these sub-orbital offerings won't actually get you into space, which is defined as being 100 km (62 mi) from the Earth's surface, they may well satisfy these longings.

Enter World View Enterprises, a start-up company based in Tucson, Arizona that is trying to strike a new balance to entice space enthusiasts into the fold of space tourism. The company hopes that very its high altitude balloon flights will press enough of the right buttons that space-hungry enthusiasts will pony up $75K for a ride.

Design

The World View balloon capsule will be treated as a space vehicle by the FAA (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon capsule will be treated as a space vehicle by the FAA (Photo: World View Enterprises)

Aiming at an altitude of 30 km (19 mi, or just under 100,000 ft), two pilots and up to six passengers will enter a pressurized, shirt-sleeve environment capsule, which appears from the concept pictures to be a horizontal cylinder about 3 m in diameter and about 6 m in length.

The World View balloon at altitude, where a black sky and a curved horizon can be plainly seen (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon at altitude, where a black sky and a curved horizon can be plainly seen (Photo: World View Enterprises)

The capsule is deployed below a parasail (used for recovery), with the pair hanging from a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cu ft) helium balloon, which provides the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to the desired 30 km altitude. The initial helium fill requires about 5000 cubic meters, costing about $50-60,000. The surface area of the balloon is about 25 acres (100,000 sq m), but as the high-density polyethylene is only about 20 microns (just under 0.001 in) in thickness, its total weight is around two tons.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the engineering and environmental challenges facing the pressurized capsule are essentially the same as those met in low-earth orbit. They are requiring that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, although it is never intended to operate at altitudes much above 30 km. It will not, however, have to follow the rules and procedures governing launch of suborbital rockets, as, in the FAA representative's perceptive words, "the World View capsule is not a rocket."

The design has a safety factor of 1.4, the same as that required of manned space systems. This is one of the largest helium balloons ever used for human flight, although it's just half the size of the Red Bull balloon from which Felix Baumgartner made his record-setting supersonic skydive.

Flight Plan

The World View balloon capsule lifts free of Earth (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View balloon capsule lifts free of Earth (Photo: World View Enterprises)

The flight itself is projected to last about four hours. Ascent to the 30 km target altitude is estimated to take 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will remain at altitude for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.

The first step in returning the capsule to the surface is to cut away the balloon. This does produce a period of weightlessness (and likely a bit of terror), but passengers will breathe again once the capsule gains enough speed that the parafoil can provide sufficient lift to keep the descent of the capsule under control. The capsule lands as a paraglider, deploying a set of skids upon which to land.

As a physicist who did his Ph.D. thesis on low temperature physics, I have to comment on throwing away the helium with the balloon. Helium is a non-renewable resource whose origins are in the alpha decay of uranium and thorium and their decay products within the Earth's crust. Some of this helium eventually diffuses into underground cavities containing petroleum and natural gas, from which the helium can be extracted by fractional diffusion.

The problem is that no mechanism exists to replenish our accessible sources of helium in less than geological time frames, so we have to be careful to husband our limited supplies. Ultimately the market will render wasting helium uneconomical, but that date is not likely to be greatly affected by high altitude balloon flights.

The World View capsule awaits launch (Photo: World View Enterprises)
The World View capsule awaits launch (Photo: World View Enterprises)

All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points, such as seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, that may add up to an experience that's almost as good as being in space. However, it misses the key bragging right, a set of astronaut's wings, not by a mile, but by about 43 of them. Will enough passengers still line up for an amazing day's flight that costs a startling $75K? Time will tell, but I have my doubts. Regardless, the World View video below is amazing.

Source: World View Enterprises

$75K 'Edge Of Space' Balloon Ride Gets FAA Approval | Animation

23 comments
BigGoofyGuy
I think if they want to attract more people to go for a ride, they would need to reduce the price. Perhaps this situation they could use a blend of helium and hydrogen? Have the hydrogen be the main lifting gas while have just enough helium to keep it safe? It could reduce the need to use helium. I think it is really cool. It would be neat to have cameras on both the outside and the inside. Perhaps have a 'flight to space' experience similar to the Soarin ride at Disney Land and Disney World. I think they could make more money that way. It would allow more people to experience it without the high cost.
bergamot69
Agree with the author re the profligate waste of helium- it seems incredibly wasteful of a non renewable resource just to provide a four-hour jolly for the privileged few.
Chris White
Agree on the waste of heilium. There is a lot less than we realize. The current price is not reflective of the supply or demand as the U.S. Congress passed a law in the early 2000's that our strategic supply of helium needs to be drained by x date. As a result, the U.S. has priced it at such a rate that it will meet this demand, ignoring the fact that the market price sans this flood is actually significantly higher.
PuraVida
Ammonia gas is lighter-than-air and has the added benefit of being compressed to a liquid which would reduce lift and create ballast thus allowing better altitude control. Pros: cost, re-usable, better altitude control, larger molecule than He (balloon wall material choices) Cons: irritant to humans, toxic, condensation issues of moisture dripping on outside of balloon could react with leak forming ammonium hydroxide, which could drip onto gondola. Definitely a consideration for unmanned cell phone and communications dirigibles.
VirtualGathis
I would think that it would be cheaper especially in the long run to include a pump and storage for the helium rather than throw away a few hundred thousand cubic meters of it every "launch". It wouldn't have to be an enormous pump as the decent doesn't need to be fast.
William Bangs
Looks cool, but not $70,000 worth of cool. They're going to have to work on that part of it.
Don Duncan
"...the...F.A.A. has determined..." ?? Can't we do anything without govt.? This is not an "aircraft". It's a "floatcraft". It does not fly or glide. It goes up and then comes down. "Land of the free" or land of the controlled? The He problem is easily fixed: use H2.
flylowguy
That's quite a pricey ticket just to go a little more than twice as high as airliners already go on a daily basis.
kalqlate
If they're really smart, they will take very hi-res panoramic shots on their first trip up, drop them on a server, create a small app for panning about... Oculus Rift style. The Oculus Rift is looking like it will be a very successful product, and high-scale, hi-res panoramas will be popular items for such head-tracking displays. I imagine that few people would be willing to pay $75K for the real deal, but many hundreds of thousands of people would be willing to pay a few tens of dollar for an amazing and dramatic virtual view of the Earth that, other than lack of weightlessness, would look like the real deal.
David Clarke
As kalqlate suggests, a hi-res, panoramic video could be made, and shown on HD screens from the outside of a mock up capsule. As there is little or no acceleration felt going up in a balloon, the assimilated experience would feel real. The capsule could in reality be towed up a tower, and when the "balloon" is released, the capsule could be dropped in freefall, to create a feeling of weightlessness, if only for a few seconds. This could easily be a fairground ride of the near future. One thing struck me, watching the video. The para-sail would not stay in its inflated form as it needs to be moving forward into the wind. If there was a wind the balloon would be moving along with it.