The Significance of Britains Big Space Balloon

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The Big Space Balloon is a near-space environment research and exploration project based on the Isle of Wight, UK, and spearheaded by construction designer Rich Curtis. Curtis designed the balloon and is the life-force of the project. He is joined by consultant engineer, John Ackroyd, who has worked on many balloon ventures from Julian Nott’s “Endeavor” round-the-world flight project to Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand’s many high altitude balloon ocean crossings.

According to the Big Space Balloon project website, the goal of the project is to launch a high altitude research balloon that will be able to fly to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere. Once the balloon has arrived at the border between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, scientists can remotely conduct experiments and, as Curtis explains it, “explore the highest regions of the earth’s atmosphere.” Inexpensive compared to rocket and shuttle launches and built with environmental concerns in mind, the reusable balloon and capsule will be deployed for numerous missions.

The Big Space Balloon website reports that the super pressure balloon, measuring 100,000 meters in diameter, will be able to reach into the stratosphere, achieving altitudes of up to 130,000 feet and that it will carry a payload capsule full of scientific equipment. This equipment will be used to conduct an array of scientific inquiries, ranging from environmental experiments to research into the space sciences.

The Big Space Balloon project will allow scientists to monitor environmental changes in the Earth’s atmosphere and watch near-space for meteors and falling debris from old spacecraft and satellites. In an illustration on his website, Curtis suggests that affixing a laser to the telescope on the payload capsule will allow it to track or divert falling objects that might be a danger to human populations on Earth into less hazardous paths.

According to the Big Space Balloon project website, the balloon and the capsule will be created using cutting edge materials and techniques. The balloon’s “super solar skin,” will be comprised of 20,000 meters squared of recycled polythene. The polythene fabric will be directly imprinted with solar photovoltaic cells, which will form the power system for the balloon. The photovoltaic cells will generate up to 100 kWh of power, enough electricity to keep the International Space Station running.

The payload capsule, made of composite materials chosen for their strength and durability, will be built using an up-to-the-minute process called “Additive Layer Manufacturing.” On his website, Curtis notes that “this process works by printing multiple layers of polymer-based materials on top of each other to build up a3D object.” He goes on to note that this 3D technology is environmentally advantageous because it uses only the raw materials required to make the capsule. No excess waste is sent to landfills.

The Big Space Balloon’s pioneering use of these technologies will provide comparatively low-cost opportunities to test them in the harshness of space. Should these technologies prove effective in the balloon’s early missions, the future may hold many applications for Curtis’s brainchild. Curtis suggests that his balloons could be used in interplanetary exploration. A manned version of the balloon and capsule might also be developed that to take passengers on sight-seeing tours to “the edge of space.”

Curtis wants the economic opportunities generated by his fledgling venture to benefit his UK countrymen first, intending to use British companies in the manufacture and launching of his balloon and providing British businesses and universities the first chance at sending their experiments into the stratosphere. He has a novel strategy for funding for the project. His website offers anyone who would like to see the project go forward a chance to donate funds to it. People or businesses can also sponsor the project by buying advertising or placing images on the website and on the scientific capsule itself. Curtis explains that the ads will be printed on the sides of the capsule and that high resolution outrigger cameras mounted on the capsule will photograph and video the surface of the capsule when it reaches the outer atmosphere, sending the pictures back to Earth for the advertisers to see. Ten pounds will buy a 10 x10 pixel space on the outside of the capsule and the more pixels the advertiser purchases the larger the ad or picture will be on the Big Space Balloon website and on the capsule. Curtis hopes to raise as much as 500,000 pounds over twelve to eighteen months to fund the project. His goal is to launch his balloon in late 2012.

The Big Space Balloon project is one man’s ambition, but it is a vision that captures the imagination and excitement of many. With funding for space exploration being cut by many national governments, it takes courage and ambition to turn to the world for support in an effort to progress in this field. Persuading the world to follow his dream one person at a time, Rich Curtis appears to have the guts and spirit to reach for those stars.  

More about this author: Lucy E. Zahnle

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