Thinking Tech

Video: Gigantic balloon to lift tourists into space

Video: Gigantic balloon to lift tourists into space

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Zero2infinity's helium-filled aircraft, the Bloon, is designed to lift passengers to an altitude of 22 miles above the earth's atmosphere.

Space agencies like NASA deserve plenty of credit for taking human exploration further than it's ever been. But at the same time I've always felt they've unintentionally created the false impression that space travel requires all kinds of elaborate technology like rocket boosters and sophisticated shuttle equipment. Now a little-known start-up is poised to show that a trip to the heavens can be as simple as hitching a ride on a balloon.

Zero2infinity's helium-filled aircraft, the Bloon, is designed to lift passengers to an altitude of 22 miles where they can cruise around the earth's upper atmosphere. Granted, such a short distance isn't high enough for feelings of weightlessness to be easily induced as they are on the International Space Station. For perspective, the orbiting space station is located 220 miles away, where conditions are much more ideal to create such an environment.

Still, the elevation should enable tourists to see the curvature of the earth and take in panoramic views of other celestial bodies. Essentially, it'll be enough for them to get that "hey! I'm in outer space" feeling, even though in actuality they'll be floating in a region just below that known as "near-space."

Reaching the destination point will only take about an hour and passengers will have the peace of mind that the journey is emissions-free since the contraption isn't powered by rocket fuel or other environmentally-unfriendly energy sources. For interested businesses, the company also touts other benefits such as the absence of noise pollution and costly infrastructure.

The balloon's dimensions provides a sense of just how much helium is needed to levitate a pod carrying six people. The balloon itself measures 423 feet by 316 feet, while the passenger housing is roughly 13.7 feet in diameter.

The notion of ascending into space using helium balloons is actually a fairly old idea. In fact, before rocket ships, humans relied on them to rise above the clouds. One of the most famous examples of a helium-powered near-space journey was made back in 1960 by Joe Kittenger, who soared to an elevation of 20 miles before he jumped off and parachuted back down to earth to claim the world's record for the highest jump ever.

Here's what it looked like:

For guests aboard the Bloon, the return to terrestrial ground won't be as death-defying. After cruising around for a couple of hours, the module will begin its fall by releasing helium from the sail end. A parachute will be deployed during the last 30 minutes of the home-bound journey. Before landing, eight vented airbags at the bottom of the pod will activate to cushion the impact.

Zero2infinity has tested an unmanned prototype that reached an altitude of 20 miles and has completed  an initial round of venture funding (Series A) and plans to put the airship into operation in 2013 at the earliest. The company's says interested tourists can book a spot ahead of time by registering on the site. Tickets aboard the Bloon start at $156,000 dollars.

There is, however, one major potential roadblock. Helium is a limited non-renewable resource which so happens to be in high demand from manufacturers of superconductors to medical devices. And experts estimate that the world will run out of helium within 25 years, an impending shortage that may be enough of a obstacle to pop Zero2infinity's balloon (no pun intended).

We'll have to wait and see over the next few years of this idea ever gets off the ground.

Author's note: The post was amended to state more accurately that the balloon doesn't go high enough where conditions would be ideal to create a zero-g environment. The International Space Station, for instance, is high enough where the effects of atmospheric drag on it's orbit can be easily mitigated.

(via Treehugger, inbloon.com)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure