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World View capsule
World View is working on balloon-and-parafoil systems that could carry payloads into the stratosphere, as shown in this artist’s conception. (Credit: World View Enterprises)

World View Enterprises made a splash with its plans to send tourists up to the stratosphere, but now it has a more down-to-earth focus: using balloons to send up satellite-style payloads for months-long missions.

The tours are still part of the Arizona-based company’s business plan, CEO Jane Poynter said today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle. The time frame for testing a full-size mockup of the Voyager crew capsule has been pushed back, however.

In January, Poynter said the flight test would take place in mid-2016. Today, she said that test would be conducted early next year instead.

In the meantime, World View is ramping up its “Stratollite” system i(“Stratosphere” plus “Satellite”). The program involves attaching payloads to a high-altitude balloon, lofting them up beyond 100,000 feet in altitude, and letting them float above the clouds to relay signals, capture imagery, gather weather data or perform other functions that are typically done by satellites or large unmanned aerial vehicles.

Stratollites would be equipped with navigation systems that take advantage of wind currents at different altitudes to loiter over a given location or meander along a given course, potentially around the world. At the end of the mission, the payload would deploy a parafoil and descend to a gliding touchdown.

“We are really focused on our Stratollite system this year,” Poynter told GeekWire.

This month, World View and Ball Aerospace announced they would collaborate on a Stratollite project for remote sensing applications. That deal follows up on a $15 million funding round in April that was aimed at accelerating Stratollite development.

Poynter declined to say how much a Stratollite mission would cost but said more information would become available in the months ahead.

“We think of ourselves as somewhat disrupting [the market for] large UAVs,” Poynter said. Flying a Stratollite mission could be orders of magnitude less expensive than flying a drone when costed out on a per-hour basis, she said.

Poynter said World View was on track to start using Spaceport Tucson in Arizona for its flights by the end of the year. In January, Pima County approved a $15 million spaceport investment deal, backed by future tax revenue. She said the concrete is being poured for World View’s balloon launch pad. “It’s moving, it’s awesome,” she said.

Poynter emphasized that the Stratollite tests would help blaze the trail for the Voyager passenger flights, which are expected to last about five hours and cost $75,000 per person. At one time, World View’s schedule called for taking on passengers in late 2017 or 2018, but that schedule is likely to be in flux due to the heightened emphasis on the Stratollite program.

“Frankly, when you think about it, from our point of view, it’s somewhat the opposite of the satellite industry,” Poynter told GeekWire. “Getting up there is easy. … A balloon is just lifting you gently up to the edge of space. And for us, the operational risk per se, the thing we really want to home in on so that everybody has a spectacular time coming back down, is this flying part with the parafoil. So we’re really excited that we get to do that many, many, many times with the unmanned systems first before we put people on it.”

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