Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Exploration of Near Space

Captain Kittinger's big jump

Ralph Buttigieg

Sydney NSW
Next month Frenchman Michael Fournier will attempt a remarkable feat. From Canada he will ascend to an altitude of 40,000 meters in a giant helium balloon. Then he will step out from his small gondola and jump. If successful he will beat several longstanding records including highest sky dive, currently held by Captain Joseph Kittinger, (31.3 km 1960) and highest human flight, 34.668km set in April 5 1961 by Malcom D. Ross and Victor A. Prather. For a few minutes he will be in microgravity but atmospheric friction will soon begin to bite. Even so he will be falling at supersonic speeds for part of the dive. There's more to it then just breaking records too. There is some interesting technological developments such as his lightweight spacesuit. Also aeronauts and astronauts are going to need safe high altitude bail out procedures.

One of the advantages Near Space has over Outer Space is while mobility is a problem, access is relatively easy. A weather balloon will get a payload there. That flight can be tracked by radio and a parachute can return the payload to Earth. Amateurs, university groups etc. have been sending experiments up, in what are called nearcrafts , for years.

One group that has had a long history of Near Space exploration is JPAerospace. Their missions have flown payloads for schools, private individuals and others. Although a group of mostly volunteers the USAF took them seriously enough to provide a grant for the construction of a giant unmanned airship. It is hoped that the Ascender airship can reach an altitude of 100,000 feet (30km).

The Ascender airship. JPAerospace

Michael Fourneir is not the only explorer venturing into Near Space. Last November Indian Vijaypat Singhania claimed the hot air balloon record when he reached 21 km. Theres also competition from Britain. The QinetiQ 1 team of Andy Elson and Colin Prescot hope to reach 40km. Another team , which includes pilots Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson, hope to soar into Near Space on a sailplane.

Near Space is an ideal frontier for true explorers. Its challenging, interesting with important discoveries waiting to be made. Yet it's a frontier cheap enough to be explored without a government bureaucracy . The next few years should provide some interesting results.