Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Shore of the Endless Sea

The view from Near Space. JPAEROSPACE.

Ralph Buttigieg

Sydney, NSW


On we have discussed the unexplored frontiers of Outer Space, Oceans, the remote regions of Earth and the subterranean realm. But theres another unexplored region, one thats only 20 km away. The region known as Near Space.

Conventional aircraft can not go higher then about 20km. The air at higher altitudes is just too thin for engines to work. Spacecraft can not orbit lower then about 100km as atmospheric friction would bring the satellite down. The high areas in between remain out of reach for proper exploration.

Balloons can get there but they are unguided and can not reach the upper regions. Sounding rockets can go higher but their stay has to be brief. NASA had the solar-electric remotely operated aircraft Helios which reached a record breaking 29 523 meters, however it crashed near Hawaii in 2003.

Explorers (aeronauts?) in Near Space would require a space suit as the conditions are similar to Earth orbit. The sky would be black and they would be above 99% of Earth atmosphere. The temperature is below zero and ultraviolet radiation would be a danger. So little is know about the upper regions that some scientists have jokingly called the mesosphere the ignorsphere.

There is considerable interest in Near Space for possible applications. A near space platform would be an excellent observation post both for monitoring the surface and astronomy. Also high altitude platforms could be used as cheap communication “satellites”.

However exploration is what this blog is about and Near Space has several mysteries to be unraveled. Such as; just what are Noctilucent clouds? These clouds are seen at high latitudes in summer and are about 85 km up. They are composed of ice crystals but how can they form in such thin atmosphere? Also they were first recorded in 1885 so are they a new phenomenon or were they just not recorded earlier?

Another mystery; a few years ago British and Indian scientist sent up a balloon to 41 km and returned dust samples. Now this region was supposed to be sterile but the dust samples had bacteria and fungus. How did the bugs get there? The stratosphere is not supposed to mix with the lower troposphere. Do they occasionally mix due to some unknown process or what? Some scientists have taken the highly controversial position that the life actually comes from Space.

So whats up there? We will need to go and find out. I'll discuss some of the attempts to explore the frontier next time.