Space Technology Comes Full Circle with Balloons Replacing Satellites

Space Technology Comes Full Circle with Balloons Replacing Satellites

Yesterday we covered how the cycle of data storage and processing technology is turning back to a more decentralised approach with connected devices on the ‘edge’ of the internet starting to replace transfer to the cloud in by keeping data localised. Today we look at another area in which the latest technology in the world in many ways resembles previous generations presumed obsolete – Space technology.

High altitude balloons were used by scientists in the era prior to the former USSR launching Sputnik, the world’s first operational satellite, in 1958. That event prompted the USA to upscale funding of NASA and the ‘Space Race’ began in earnest between two competing geo-political superpowers with very different political and economic models.

In many ways the Space Race became the symbol of the Cold War between East and West, communism and capitalism. But one advantage of this competition was the rapid advances in the latest technology in the world of satellites. Satellites became vital to not only learning more about our galaxy and beyond but also to communications, navigations, weather monitoring and countless other areas.

Now balloons are coming back into widespread use as a technology. Their much lower costs and the fact they can be brought back to Earth for repairs and upgrades are significant strengths over satellite launches. Their big weakness until now is that still in the upper atmosphere, rather than in orbit in near Space, they drift with the wind, making precision placement impossible. New balloon technology, however, means they can now be efficiently steered. This is opening up new areas in which high altitude balloons, made of inch-thick, plastic filled helium and up to seven times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, can be used instead of satellites.

US space company Nanoracks is at the forefront of the latest high altitude balloon technology. CEO Jeffrey Manber recently explained to the BBC how the multiple layers of the stratosphere are characterised by different winds blowing in different directions. We are now able to accurately gauge the prevalent wind direction of the different altitude layers of the stratosphere. This allows those controlling balloons to steer them by moving them between altitudes to ride the winds.

Alphabet unit Project Loon also works with high altitude balloons and used them to provide internet access to Puerto Rico following the 2017 destruction of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure by hurricane Maria.

Another company, World View, uses balloons, which it calls Stratollites, to relay communications and as surveillance platforms. These platforms are used for a variety of purposes from monitoring illegal logging of the rainforests and maritime piracy to tracking and providing alerts on wild fires, which can devastate crops.

Shenzhen-based KuangChi Science is developing a ‘Traveller’ balloon, which as well as having communications use, can also carry a six-person passenger capsule. By 2021 the company expects to be offering commercial flights for £70,000 per passenger. Near-space is a frontier the race to colonise is hotting up and the latest balloon technology is at its cutting edge.

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