Balloons Could Be A Cheap Alternative To Satellites

December 02, 1998

SUPERBALLOONS, which can float for months at a time on the edge of space, could one day take over some of the work of satellites and for less than a tenth of the cost. NASA will test a prototype next March. It hopes to launch its first working balloon by the end of 2000.

The new superballoons are being developed as part of NASA's Ultra-Long Duration Balloon (ULDB) project. They are designed to overcome a fundamental technological shortcoming of existing helium-filled balloons.

The pressure inside and outside the balloon has to be kept equal to prevent stresses ripping the fragile envelope. However, the balloon must lose helium during the day when the sun's heat makes the gas expand. But the balloon will drop at night when the helium cools and contracts. "The only way to maintain altitude is to dump ballast, limiting the time aloft to a maximum of 3 to 5 days at the latitude of the US," says Steve Smith, ULDB project manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

With the help of companies in the US and Japan, NASA has developed a lightweight material that is strong enough to withstand the pressure without venting helium. The fabric has three layers bonded together. The outer layer is woven polyester fabric, with a middle layer of mylar and an inner layer of polyethylene. "The total thickness is about that of a lightweight garbage bag," says Smith.

The superballoon has been dubbed the "pumpkin" because of its odd flattened shape-it is 79 metres high and 128 metres in diameter. It will be able to carry a 1-tonne payload at an altitude of 36 kilometres for up to 100 days. The total cost will be up to $3 million.

Raven Industries of Sulphur Springs, Texas is now making an "intermediate-size" balloon. After test flights, the plan is to fly a full-size balloon in December. This will be followed by the first flight with a payload-a scientific experiment to obs-erve cosmic rays.

Smith says the balloon will be ideal for both astronomical and atmospheric experiments. It will be able to carry experiments that are too heavy or too large to fit into a rocket nose cone. Smith also says such balloons could be used to relay voices round the world for mobile phone companies. "Once people realise this is a cheap alternative to satellites, I think we'll see a host of novel applications," says Smith.

"Long-duration balloons will make a big difference to astronomy, because they're a cheap way to get almost into space," says John Mather, project scientist on NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope. And Andy Yeatman of the Meteorological Office in Bracknell says they could beam back useful data for weather forecasting. "We're always on the look out for new data for our computer models of the atmosphere," he says.

Author: Marcus Chown
New Scientist, issue 5th Dec 98

PLEASE MENTION NEW SCIENTIST AS THE SOURCE OF THIS STORY - THANK YOU

UK CONTACT - Claire Bowles, New Scientist Press Office, London:
Tel: 44 171 331 2751 or email claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
US CONTACT - Barbara Thurlow, New Scientist Washington office:
Tel: 202 452 1178 or email newscidc@idt.net
-end-


New Scientist

Related Satellites Articles from Brightsurf:

Satellites have drastically changed how we forecast hurricanes
The powerful hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900, killing an estimated 8,000 people and destroying more than 3,600 buildings, took the coastal city by surprise.

Spotting air pollution with satellites, better than ever before
Researchers from Duke University have devised a method for estimating the air quality over a small patch of land using nothing but satellite imagery and weather conditions.

New patented invention stabilizes, rotates satellites
Many satellites are in space to take photos. But a vibrating satellite, like a camera in shaky hands, can't get a sharp image.

Satellite broken? Smart satellites to the rescue
The University of Cincinnati is developing robotic networks that can work independently but collaboratively on a common task.

Combining satellites, radar provides path for better forecasts
Every minute counts when it comes to predicting severe weather.

Satellites are key to monitoring ocean carbon
Satellites now play a key role in monitoring carbon levels in the oceans, but we are only just beginning to understand their full potential.

New safer, inexpensive way to propel small satellites
A team at Purdue University has developed a new safer and inexpensive way to propel small satellites.

New developments with Chinese satellites over the past decade
To date, 17 Chinese self-developed FengYun (FY) meteorological satellites have been launched, which are widely applied in weather analysis, numerical weather forecasting and climate prediction, as well as environment and disaster monitoring.

First detection of rain over the ocean by navigation satellites
In order to analyse climate change or provide information about natural hazards, it is important to gather knowledge about the rain.

Earth's dust cloud satellites confirmed
A team of Hungarian astronomers and physicists may have confirmed two elusive clouds of dust, in semi-stable points just 400,000 kilometres from Earth.

Read More: Satellites News and Satellites Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.