World View sees strong interest in stratospheric balloons despite test incident

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BROOMFIELD, Colo. — World View, a company offering stratospheric balloon flights for research payloads, sees a bright future ahead for a platform that it argues combines the best attributes of satellites and aircraft, despite a recent testing incident at its Arizona headquarters.

Speaking at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference here Dec. 18, Jane Poynter, chief executive of World View, said the company plans to increase the flight rate and duration of its “stratollite” balloons in the coming year.

“This was a really seminal year for us in 2017,” she said. “We’re now in a high-tempo flight rate and really expanding the duration for our flights.”

The company believes that its stratollites can loiter in the stratosphere for extended periods, providing persistence that aircraft cannot offer at costs much lower than satellites. Those flights have carried research payloads, including for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, as well as commercial users, such as a summer 2017 flight that carried a chicken sandwich as publicity for a fast food restaurant chain.

Poynter said the company plans more of the same, as well as additional applications of its balloons, in 2018. “Our manifest for 2018 is really full,” she said, but did not disclose the number of balloon flights planned.

One new application of World View’s balloons is in remote sensing. At the conference, the company released the first high-resolution images taken from its balloons, using off-the-shelf camera equipment. The images, taken from altitudes of more than 20 kilometers, have a resolution of 50 centimeters, but the company expects it can improve that, with better cameras and observing techniques, to as sharp as 10 to 15 centimeters.

This capability, World View believes, can be complementary to images taken by both drones and satellites. “What we’re doing is combining the benefits and the best aspects of both satellites and high-altitude aircraft into one,” company spokesman Andrew Antonio said at a Dec. 18 briefing at the conference.

Those balloon flights use helium, but at the conference Poynter said the company was looking to use hydrogen, which is much less expensive. “It is still on our radar. We have not done it yet, but we are very close to that,” she said.

On Dec. 19, World View conducted a test of a hydrogen-filled balloon at its Tucson, Arizona, headquarters. At the end of the test, though, the balloon ruptured. Video of the test obtained by local news media shows the balloon bursting and what appears to be flames, suggesting hydrogen in the balloon combusted.

The shock waves from the incident reportedly caused minor damage to some neighboring businesses and homes, including falling ceiling tiles at a nearby Raytheon Missile Systems plant. “We also now know that some damage has been reported by a few residents and businesses in the area in addition to superficial facility damage at the site and we are proactively coordinating with the parties affected,” the company said in a statement.

Antonio said Dec. 21 that World View had established a team to investigate the incident, with a final report expected within 45 days. The company, he said, would not provide additional information about the event “out of deference to the investigation team.”

“We have used hydrogen in ground testing, but only helium in flight operations at Spaceport Tucson,” he said, referring to the pad adjacent to the company’s headquarters, near Tucson International Airport, used for balloon flights. “However, to date our use of hydrogen has been limited to ground testing when required by customers or test objectives.”

“As of now, we do not have any requirements or future plans for using hydrogen in ground testing or flight at the spaceport,” he added.