Stratospheric startup World View flew a Stratolite high-altitude balloon for 16 days straight, in an effort to show the benefits of high-altitude remote sensing for customers.
The mission included multiple examples of tight station-keeping for at least a day, in a 62-mile (100-kilometer) diameter area. It also demonstrated the balloon’s durability and distance capabilities, as it flew more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Oregon.
“This is a great accomplishment for our team,” said Ryan Hartman, World View president and CEO, in a statement, adding that the company wants to move towards producing high-resolution photography from these Stratolite flights.
“Affordable, real-time, persistent intelligence from a high-altitude platform does not exist today,” Hartman added. “We are continually inspired by the positive impact such a capability could have on the world, and today marks a big step towards that vision.”
World View’s main competitor for balloon photography comes from several companies that operate in space, such as Planet or Urthecast. Both high-altitude balloons and satellites can provide high-resolution photography over large swaths of terrain. Balloons stay in the air for short periods of time, but they tend to be cheaper to launch and easier to direct over a certain area (as long as the prevailing winds are taken into account.)
Satellites persist in orbit for months or years at a time, but tend to be deployed in swarms to allow for fast revisit times to individual locations — and to give comprehensive coverage. That’s because satellites, once sent into space, do not have enough fuel on board to change orbits. Satellites also tend to be expensive, although their cost is diminishing with more frequent CubeSat and nanosat launches.
Stratolite will eventually fly for months at a time, using what World View calls “proprietary altitude technology.” The balloon can control its position and altitude using the prevailing winds at stratospheric heights. Payloads it carries aloft can stay connected with control centers on Earth, and once the mission is finished, Stratolite is advertised as a pinpoint-landing platform for easy recovery of data.
In March 2018, World View announced it raised $26.5 million in Series C funding; across its Series A, B and C rounds, the company has received nearly $50 million from investors. The latest round of funding was supposed to push forward development of Stratolite and commercial applications of high-altitude ballooning.
Another possible future stream of income could come from offering rides to the stratosphere to show off the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth. While the company has not released a firm flight date and is focusing on commercial uses of Stratolite for now, the company is taking requests to bring tourists to 100,000 feet (32 kilometers) during a five- to six-hour flight. Another market for this work could be researchers needing to monitor experiments close by during flights, World View says on its website.
This tourism market is nascent, but includes companies such as Spanish ballooning company Zero 2 Infinity, and companies that may fly into space itself such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. For now, however, the most popular space markets come from commercial applications such as telecommunications, surveillance, and natural resource monitoring.