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Project Loon balloon
Project Loon’s balloons are getting better at staying in one place. (Credit: Project Loon via YouTube)

Drones, satellites and rocket planes are all well and good for high-flying missions, but sometimes the best craft for the job is a balloon.

Google’s Project Loon, for example, is enlisting machine learning to pilot its experimental data-beaming balloons through the stratosphere. And other ventures are using high-altitude balloon platforms to conduct missions traditionally associated with suborbital rocket launches.

Here’s a quick rundown on three ventures that are pushing the envelope:

AI is my pilot: Wired reports on how the lab formerly known as Google X, and now known as Alphabet’s X, is making use of huge data sets to learn how to keep its autonomously guided Project Loon balloons where they need to be to provide Internet coverage. An analysis of stratospheric wind patterns helps X’s programmers tweak the algorithms for the balloons’ navigation systems to cope with unpredictable gusts.

“We have more machine learning in more of the right places,” Project Loon engineer Sal Candido tells Wired. “These algorithms are handling things more efficiently than any person could.”

Those smarter guidance systems made it possible for Project Loon’s team to keep a balloon in the stratosphere over Peru for 98 days this summer. Let’s just hope those balloons don’t become sentient.

World View balloon
World View’s team prepares a high-altitude balloon to carry a solar observatory payload into the stratosphere. (Credit: Carmen Noriega / World View)

Stratollites away! Arizona-based World View Enterprises has long touted its concept for high-altitude balloons that can perform functions traditionally associated with satellites. This month, World View lofted a 160-pound solar observatory to an altitude of 103,000 feet on a “stratollite” as part of an experiment funded by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

Southwest Research Institute’s Solar Instrument Pointing Platform stayed up for five hours, then descended safely back to the ground “in pristine condition with no noticeable damage,” World View’s Rolfe Bode said in a NASA news release.

Future flights will include instrumentation to search for signs of a sound wave reverberating in the solar atmosphere, at a frequency that would be 10 to 15 octaves below the bottom note of a piano. Such waves can’t be detected from the ground. NASA says stratollites eventually could provide an inexpensive way to test space technologies before they go into space.

Ascender 36 rises
JP Aerospace’s team launches the Ascender 36 airship from northern Nevada. (Credit: JP Aerospace)

Ballooning to space: One of the longest-running balloon research ventures is JP Aerospace, which has been conducting balloon-to-space experiments for more than a decade. Today, high-altitude balloons can rise no more than, say, 170,000 feet before they pop. But company founder John Powell wants to build a balloon-launched system that can rise more than twice as high, all the way to the space frontier.

This month JP Aerospace launched the latest version of its uncrewed airship prototype, Ascender 36, from its test site in northern Nevada. In a blog posting, Powell said the Ascender 36’s cruise was “a real shake down.”

“It took two hours more than planned to get her into the air,” he wrote. “Instead of the forecasted calm morning, we had windy condition with the wind howling from the opposite direction. However, when we got her into the air she put her nose up and screamed in to the sky.”

Powell said the balloon rose to a height of 13,512 feet, and came back down 11 miles downrange. That’s one small step toward what could be a giant leap into the stratosphere.

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