World View Enterprises, a private company that plans to sell balloon rides to the edge of space, has announced the grand opening of its new headquarters and a conjoined spaceport in Tucson, Arizona.
The new facility will soon be launching World View's non-crewed high altitude balloons, which could provide a low-cost alternative to launching payloads into space, according to company representatives. The balloons can carry instruments and equipment that could, for example, be used to consistently observe severe weather events or natural disasters. The balloon could also carry equipment for scientific investigations (opens in new tab), communications, remote sensing and wealth of other potential applications.
The newly completed Spaceport Tucson was built specifically to launch high-altitude balloons, and includes a 700-foot-wide (200 meters) launchpad. The spaceport is owned by Pima County (where it is located) but is operated by World View Enterprises, which now has its headquarters attached to the spaceport. World View employees have already started working out of the new digs, and the first uncrewed launches from Spaceport Tucson are expected to take place in the next few months, company representatives told Space.com. [World View's Near-Space Balloon Rides in Pictures]
"It is really the only [facility] in the world that has been built for the sole purpose of stratospheric flight," Jane Poynter, co-founder and CEO of World View Enterprises, said during a news conference yesterday (Feb. 23) to announce the grand opening.
The company also plans to eventually offer crewed balloon flights that will take passengers to a peak altitude of about 100,000 feet (30,000 m), where it's possible to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space. World View currently hasn't announced when it will make its first crewed launches.
World View' Enterprises' four co-founders spoke during the news conference about the untapped potential of the stratosphere. The commercial airline industry generates trillions of dollars per year utilizing the region of the atmosphere up to about 55,000 feet (16,000 meters), said former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who is a co-founder of World View and serves as director of flight crew operations. Above about 500,000 feet (152000 meters), satellites are now prevalent, and the commercial space industry continues to blossom. But most of the stratosphere — between about 55,000 and 165,000 feet above the Earth — remains under used. There's very little air in the stratosphere (a limit for airplanes) and it would be extremely difficult to get something to orbit the Earth at such a low altitude, Kelly said.
"Trillions of dollars spent within the atmosphere, hundreds of billions of dollars spent in orbit around the Earth. But in the stratosphere, basically nothing," Kelly said. "So that's where this technology, using high altitude balloons up in the stratosphere, has essentially, at this point, with the opening of this building, opened an entire new world of business and aviation."
World View will use its new facility to manufacture its stratospheric balloons and assemble the spacecraft that are attached to the balloons, as well as for payload integration and flight mission control.
The company will also use the facility for developing its new uncrewed vehicles, called Stratollites, a name that combines "stratosphere" and "satellites." Stratollites can reach maximum altitudes of about 150,000 feet (45,000 meters) and remain above the same region of the Earth for days, weeks or months, according to the company website (opens in new tab). That means Stratollites could provide consistent monitoring of extreme weather or natural disasters, combat zones and ocean shipping routes affected by ice flows, company representatives said at the news conference.
"We want to focus [on] where we're truly differentiated from anything that anybody else is doing," Poynter said.
For example, hurricanes are monitored as they develop and begin to move, and this monitoring is done in such a way that scientists can't keep sensors directly over the storm for long periods of time, according to Poynter.
"If you have a Stratollite over a hurricane … you can, with great accuracy, we believe, understand where that hurricane is going, because we can track it all the way along and get complete data on the hurricane as it's building up and as it's moving," Poynter said. Providing people with more accurate trajectories could mean getting people out of harm's way, but also avoiding unnecessary evacuations, she said.
"We've really got something unique," Alan Stern, a World View co-founder and the company's chief scientist, said during the news conference. (Stern is also principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto.) "I think there's going to be a lot of demand for it," he said. "I think it's hard to forecast exactly where that demand will come from."
Compared with a traditional satellite, the Stratollites are cheaper to launch, and their closer proximity to the ground mean they can provide better image resolution of the ground, the World View representatives said.
"Last year, we were really focused on developing the technology of the Stratollite," Poynter said. "This year, we're really focused on rolling out the demonstrations with very specific instruments."
Yesterday, World View also announced the completion of a Stratollite mission, in conjunction with Ball Aerospace, that demonstrated "early capabilities for remote sensing applications from the stratosphere," according to a statement from World View (opens in new tab). The Stratollite vehicle, equipped with Ball Aerospace instruments, reached a peak altitude of 76,900 feet (23,400 meters) and was able to observe the ground with a resolution of about 16 feet (5 m) — precise enough to "track individual vehicles on the ground," Stern said.
The collaboration with Ball Aerospace "paves the way for future flights offering higher-resolution multispectral sensors for applications such as public safety, homeland security, and civic resource mapping and monitoring," World View representatives said in the statement.
"So we're real; we're out there; we're flying," Stern said. "We're flying for customers and for our own purposes." [Giant Balloon Trips to Near-Space: Q&A with World View CEO Jane Poynter]
A balloon ride to the edge of space
World View is already selling tickets to ride on passenger balloons that will reach altitudes of about 100,000 feet. The company previously announced that it would begin customer flights in 2017, but no exact date has been announced.
"We certainly will fly when it's good and safe to fly," Poynter said. "But we're making a lot of progress in a lot of areas, all the way from operations to balloon design and manufacturing."
Poynter and some of the other World View representatives said there is overlap and redundancies between the uncrewed and crewed vehicles, so the work that's been done leading up to the launch of Stratollites has been feeding into the company's human spaceflight program.
Kelly spoke during the news conference about the "life-changing" experience of seeing the Earth from such a high altitude.
"To see [the Earth] as a round ball in the blackness of space really changes your idea and your thought about our planet and about humanity," Kelly said. "So as a company, we are really looking forward to opening up that opportunity eventually to thousands of people around the world."
Right now, tickets for a trip on a World View balloon cost $75,000 per seat. Poynter said she thinks that the price could rise initially because of high demand but that eventually, the company expects the price to go down "pretty significantly." Poynter said she hopes to see the cost drop into "the $25,000 to $30,000 range."
In January 2016, the Pima County Board approved the construction of Spaceport Tucson, and gave operation responsibilities to World View Enterprises. The county also offered to spend $15 million on the facility in exchange for 20 years of lease payments from World View. That payment prompted a lawsuit against the county alleging that the board "violated the state's gift clause by extending its credit to a private company without a public purpose," according to an article in the Arizona Daily Star.
World View is not named in the lawsuit, the company representatives said at the news conference. When asked whether the outcome of the suit could affect World View's lease of the spaceport, Taber MacCallum, co-founder and chief technology officer for World View, said, "I'm sure there will be an equitable resolution if there is an issue, so it's really not a significant concern."