COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The U.S. Air Force intends to establish by 2008 a program office for buying high-altitude atmospheric vehicles that provide satellite-type services, according to service officials.

One such vehicle that could be pressed into the field quickly is a balloon-mounted communications relay that could dramatically expand the range of radios used by ground forces , said Maj. Steven Staats, deputy chief of demonstration initiatives at Air Force Space Command’s Space Battlelab at Schriever Air Force Base here. A prototype of that vehicle, dubbed Combat SkySat, was demonstrated March 14-17 near Phoenix, he said.

Combat SkySat is part of a recent push by the Air Force to examine operations at an altitude layer it calls near space — around 20 kilometers to 23 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The Air Force believes relatively inexpensive vehicles flying in this airspace could complement satellites as well as unmanned aerial vehicles .

The new program office also will look at much larger, highly mobile vehicles that could perform longer-duration missions, Staats said during an April 5 interview here. But those systems likely will require considerable research and development before they can be ready for use, he said.

The new Joint Warfighting Space program office will be established within the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Detachment 12 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. In addition to near-space vehicles, the new office would handle the acquisition of small satellites designed for launch on short notice, according to a written statement from the Detachment 12 program office provided by Tonya Racasner, an Air Force spokeswoman.

In the interim, the Air Force has set up a “virtual” program office led by Lt. Col. Randy Riddle at Detachment 12 that includes participation by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center’s Transformation Office, and the Space Battlelab, the official said.

While the program office will handle acquisitions, the battlelab will continue fulfilling its charter of conducting demonstrations that assess the military utility of commercially available technology , Staats said.

The Combat Skysat vehicle was built by Space Data Corp. of Chandler, Ariz., which has flown data-relay balloons over the past year for oil and gas companies in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, according to Philip De Carlo, the company’s director of program management. The balloons collect and transmit information such as how much oil is being pumped from rigs in remote areas with little or no communications infrastructure, he said .

The untethered demonstration vehicle basically was a hydrogen-filled balloon carrying a PRC-148 military radio built by Thales Communications of Clarksburg, Md. Using hydrogen for near-space vehicles makes sense because it can be generated from water in the field, and thus does not impose the same logistical burdens as other lighter-than-air gases like helium, Staats said.

The entire platform weighs less than 2.3 kilograms and can be launched by one or two people out of the back of a pickup truck, Staats said. The demonstration vehicle cost about $20,000, but Air Force officials believe production versions could carry a price tag of about $2,000 each, he said.

The March demonstration focused on the utility of high-altitude balloon relays for close air support missions, Staats said. Ground forces often do not have satellite access, and thus must communicate directly with aircraft operating in their line of sight to call in air strikes, he said. This means aircraft need to loiter near the battlefield, increasing their vulnerability, he said. Using the Combat SkySat system, ground-based forces were able to increase their communications range with aircraft from 13 kilometers to some 320 kilometers, he said.

Maj. Gen. Douglas Fraser, director of air and space operations at Air Force Space Command, said vulnerability of near-space vehicles to enemy fire is not a big concern. The balloons are difficult to detect using infrared or radar sensors, and operate at altitudes that are above the range of fighter aircraft, he said in an April 4 interview at Peterson Air Force Base here.

Although ground-based missiles could take out high-altitude relay balloons, the missiles cost perhaps 100 times as much to replace, a tradeoff the Air Force is willing to accept, Staats said.

And because the balloon relays would operate at far lower altitudes than satellites, their transmitters would not have to be nearly as strong as those on satellites to overcome jamming attempts, Staats said.

One factor that might limit the effectiveness of untethered high-altitude balloon relays is wind. But De Carlo said that on a calm day one balloon could provide coverage of a given area for a full day before drifting out of range. On windier days, he said, multiple balloons might have to be launched, he said.

Staats said the Combat SkySat demonstration results indicate that there are several other uses for near-space vehicles besides providing close-air support communications. For example, De Carlo said, federal agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security could use such vehicles for U.S. border surveillance.