It is big and it is clever (and it's got a laser)
As a flying machine, the balloon falls a little short of magnificence. Sure, it’ll go up, tiddly up, up and it’ll go down, tiddly down, down, but (at the mercy of the wind and with no way to steer yourself) what happens in between is anybody’s guess. Which is why you never be catching the 0930 balloon to Winchester (or indeed anywhere else).
Yet, despite its limitations, the balloon has does have a magnificent flying history. For the early pioneers of flights, it provided his first chariot to heavens. And for the early meteorologists it was instrument that allowed him to probe our planet’s dynamic, complex and turbulent atmosphere for the first time. For more than 100 years the balloon ruled the skies but, with arrival of winged aircraft and rocket ships, our silent hero was shouted down and, what was once a wonder of the modern age, became a little more than a novelty.
Now an Isle of Wight-based company is aiming to restore the balloon back to the age of wonder. They hope to launch Britain’s biggest high-altitude research balloon to the ‘edge of space’ and explore the highest regions of the Earth’s atmosphere, which border the vacuum of space. The laconically titled ‘Big Space Balloon’ will carry an experiment-laden science capsule to an altitude of 40km above the Isle of Wight.
Its innovative design includes a colossal 100m-wide balloon (made from 100 per cent recycled polythene) covered with printed solar cells, which will be capable of generating enough electricity to power a space station. The science capsule will be built by a 3D polymer printer and, as well as a multitude of atmosphere-probing gadgets, it will sport a space-debris-zapping laser.
[Graphic: All about The Big Space Balloon. Click to inflate]
The craft's designers hope to be able to get the British behemoth off the ground next year and are seeking sponsors to help raise the £500,000 that the project will require. Anyone can sponsor the Big Space Balloon and help get this great British project airborne. Sponsorship starts at £10 and will see your image, logo or just your name carried to the ‘edge of space’. Head over to The Big Space Balloon website to find out more.
Great balls of power
The balloon envelope will utilise the latest in solar photovoltaic cell printing technology, to transform the balloon envelope into a giant power generating station. The solar cells will be printed directly onto the balloon fabric enabling it to produce electricity.
With a surface area of 20,000m squared, the Big Space Balloons envelope will be capable of generating up to 100 kWh of power, enough power to supply the International Space Station.
Getting tough with space junk
There currently more than 13,000 pieces of debris measuring more 10cm in orbit (and many hundreds of thousands of smaller objects). When large chunks collide, they can break up making the problem even worse.
One idea is equip the Big Space Balloon with a high power laser unit. Mounted onto the craft’s telescope, it will be able to lock on to and track space debris objects. The relative lack of atmosphere at this altitude means that even a modestly powered laser could potentially be used to push space debris into an orbit that decreases the chance of a collision
Seeking the high life
Believe it or not, there is life floating around in the stratosphere. In 2009, three new species of bacteria were discovered, which are not found on Earth (but are definitely not alien). So far, 12 different bacteria and six fungal colonies have been found. The Big Space Balloon could search for these radiation resistant beasties
The technology developed for the Big Space Balloon has the future potential to be used in interplanetary exploration, carrying out airborne surveys of the surface of neighbouring planets such as Mars and Venus.