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Near Space
The shore of our new ocean


HobbySpace.com in Near Space
The HobbySpace.com logo gets a ride to Near Space
courtesy of JP Aerospace. Learn how to send your logo to space.

John F. Kennedy in his famous Rice University speech referred to space as our New Ocean. And just as an ocean possesses a shore, so do we find a shore above us at the transition from earth to space.

This space shore is often referred to as Near Space.

The realm of Near Space officially lies between 75,000 feet (~23km) and and 62.5 miles (100km) according to the International Aeronautical Federation (FAI). Here we consider a wider range that extends up to 200km or so where it becomes safe for satellites to remain in orbit without immediately becoming dragged down by friction with the residual atmosphere.

The vehicles that traverse this high altitude domain are called nearcraft. These include sub-orbital rockets, which make quick jumps into and out of near space, and high-altitude balloons that can loiter there for extended periods.

Weather balloons routinely go to 27km (~90k ft). Scientific balloons go to 42 km (137k ft or 26mi) and remain at high altitudes for several days. The world record altitude reached by an unmanned balloon is 51.82km (170k ft or 32.2mi).

The record for altitude reached by a crewed balloon was set by Malcom D. Ross and Victor A. Prather who flew to 34.668km (113,740ft or 21.54mi) on April 5, 1961.

Compared to orbital flights and journey's to the Moon and Mars, Near Space may seem of little interest, only an interlude on the way to more exciting places. In fact, Near Space offers numerous exciting benefits and applications.

Here is a list of some possible benefits of utilizing Near Space:

  • Cheaper and quicker access to space-like conditions are offered by nearcraft as compared to getting a launch to orbit. See the Ballooning and Sub-orbital rocket entries below.

  • Amateur groups participation: Ham radio enthusiasts, students, and amateur scientists carry out high altitude experiments in astronomy and atmospheric studies, taking high altitude pictures, and testing equipment that will be used on satellites.

  • High altitude cameras can see for several hundred miles farther than with aerial photography and access to a given area is more flexible than with the infrequent fly-overs by remote sensing satellite.

  • Development of sub-orbital RLVs will be much quicker and cheaper than orbital vehicles. The technology, operations techniques, etc. learned from sub-orbital systems will then be applicable to second generation vehicles intended for orbit. See the article Sub-orbital Rockets to Space: The Next Logical Step?

  • Sub-orbital space tourism packages will offer trips that may last in total only half an hour or so. Yet, at the top of 100km trajectory one will see the curvature of the earth below and a dark starry sky above and one will experience the accelerating thrill of riding a rocket and then feel a few minutes of microgravity. Many people may actually prefer this kind of brief initial space experience over a full blown stay in orbit for several days. See the Sub-orbital Space Tourism section

Copyright TVNSP

Image of a lake taken from +100k ft by a camera on an amateur high altitude balloon.
Cameras can see the horizon out to several hundred miles from Near Space.

So just as there are those who prefer the sea shore for such activities as swimming and fishing rather than sailing out into the open sea, so there will be many people who prefer the Near Space shore over voyages into open space.

Note: This section was inspired by a suggestion from near space enthusiast Paul Verhage.
News & Events
Near Space in Space-for-All
Find older news items in the archive ...


Amateur & Student High Altitude Ballooning

Copyright TVNSP

A near space stack consists of a helium balloon, recovery parachute, and nearcraft, and can reach fifty feet (~17m) in length. Such a stack can fly to over 100,000ft (~33km) in altitude yet costs only a few hundred dollars. The balloon expands as the stack rises and will eventually burst. The payload then parachutes to earth and is tracked with GPS data sent via telemetry on amateur radio .

The cost to launch anything to orbit is usually quite high - thousands of dollars per kilogram. Even a free piggyback ride on someone else's launcher can require long delays.

Sounding rocket flights are not so cheap either and the flights last for only a brief time.

An alternative is to put a payload on a high altitude balloon, which can cost only a few hundred dollars to fly. A balloon can reach as high as 25km and remain aloft for days. At such altitudes the payloads are above much of the atmosphere, they see the black canopy of space, and view clearly a big swath of the earth with a curved horizon out to several hundred miles.

Balloons can be good alternative for educational projects in which students usually only have a year or so to participate.

So it's not surprising that amateur high altitude ballooning has become a growing activity that involves ham radio enthusiasts and educators looking for low cost but exciting science projects for their students.

Below are some resources in this exciting field.

Introductory Materials
Other Resources
High Altitude Aerial Platforms
These commercial projects seek to place platforms at high altitude to provide services such as cell phone and broadband communications relays for urban areas, carry scientific instruments for weather and atmospheric measurements, remote sensing, etc.. (With the recession in telecommunications, most if not all of the telecom balloon projects are on hold.)
More High Altitude Resources

Away 5 Test Flight
Copyright - JPAerospace
JP Aerospace releases the Advanced Platform structure in a Jan.30, 2002 flight test.

The technique of carrying a rocket by a balloon to a high altitude for launch has been around since the 1940's. Such combo systems came to be called rockoons. Not only does a balloon give a rocket a head start in altitude, but by launching the rocket above much of the atmosphere it saves the fuel needed to punch through a lot of air when launched from the ground..

However, there are drawbacks in that the balloon does not provide a very stable platform. (JP Aerospace is attempting to build more elaborate balloon borne structures to provide greater stability and flexibility.) Rockoons are obviously affected by the wind and other weather conditions and so launches often get delayed.

Some recent rocket projects, especially amateur groups seeking to break rocket altitude records, have resurrected the rockoon approach and have made launches with them. Here are some groups working with balloon launched rockets:

Suborbital Rockets
Other Near Space Topics
Advanced Concepts
Here we provide a sample of concepts involving Near Space that are particularly ambitious and exciting.
Near Space Tourism

This company plans to provide adventure tourists the opportunity to ride a high altitude helium balloon to 100, 000ft (30km). The flight would last for about 40 hours. The balloon reaches the 100kft altitude about 3 hours after launch. The "stratonauts" will have great views of the curvature of the earth, of the black sky, and of a majestic sunrise and sunset.

Airship Hotel- WATG
WATG (Wimberley Allison Tong & Goo) is a well respected leisure and entertainment design firm that does speculative, futuristic projects on the website.

This Spanish firm plans a high altitude balloon system that will take paying passengers in a spacious gondola to 36km altitude.

Their latest test flight was conducted in November 2012, to an altitude of 32km with a 43,000m3 balloon: microbloon 2.0 soars to the edge of Space

zero2infinity has successfully launched its newest prototype, the microbloon 2.0, to the edge of Space at almost 32km in altitude. The microbloon 2.0, designed by zero2infinity, is 2 m in diameter and is a scale model of bloon, the commercial vehicle that is soon to take 4 passengers and 2 pilots to the edge of Space at an altitude of 36 km.

They plan their first human flight by the end of 2013


World View
A similar project to zero2infinity in which a passenger model with 2 pilots and 6 passengers travel via helium balloon to about 30 km. The venture was founded by Paragon Space Development Corp.


World View Experience.mp4 from World View on Vimeo.


Large Scale High Altitude Platforms

Copyright - JPAerospace
JP Aerospace's Stratostation concept for a "manned sub-orbital space station. Floating at 140,000 feet this structure will serve as a launch platform, research facility and tourism destination. At over a mile across, it will be supported by multiple Helium lift cells."
See ATO Airship To Orbit (pdf) for details

The floating city in the sky has long been a staple of science fiction. City sized platforms such as those in Star Trek or Star Wars require technology far beyond our current capabilties (e.g. anti-gravity systems that violate fundamental physics laws as we currently understand them.)

However, it's quite within our capabilities to float a platform at very high altitudes that is big enough to hold, say, living quarters for a few people and a substantial amount of equipment.

For example, JP Aerospace is proposing to build the Stratostation (see figure above.) It would offer a facility useful for a number of applications such as a place for atmospheric and space scientists to place sensors and observatories. It could also be useful for launching rockets. Vee Airships would provide access to the station.

Note that launching at high altitudes removes the fuel penalty that a ground launched vehicle must pay to punch through the atmosphere. Also, to perform efficiently, rocket nozzles must either compensate for atmospheric pressure (e.g. use an extensible mechanism or the aerospike approach) or the vehicle must use a multi-stage system in which the first stage engine nozzles are optimized for low altitudes and the second and third stages set for low air pressure and vacuum regions.

Space Diving

Kittinger Jumping from 31km
In Project Excelsior, Captan Joseph Kittinger jumped from a
balloon gondola at 102,800 ft. ((19.5mi or 31.3km) on August 16, 1960.

In 1959-1960 the Air Force carried out a series of tests called Project Excelsior, in which Captan Joseph Kittinger dived from balloon gondolas at increasing altitudes, the highest reaching 31km in altitude. He nearly reached supersonic speed before releasing his parachute. He was testing whether pilots of high altitude aircraft like the U2 spyplane could survive if they had to bail out.

See First man In Space - Skydiving from the edge of the world - Google Video.

Similar jumps from even higher altitudes, and perhaps eventually even from orbit, may become the ultimate extreme sport.

In the 1960's there were several US projects that investigated whether astronauts could rescue themselves from disabled spacecraft by "bailing out" in various types of personal protection outfits. These included General Electric's MOOSE (Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment) scheme in which the astronaut lay in an injection-seat type of pod with a heat shield and small rocket to initiate re-entry.

These and other schemes may some day lead to space diving and space surfing as the ultimate in space thrills!


The possibility of an orbital system that somehow grabs a vehicle from high altitudes and brings it up to orbit is one of those hand waving kind of concepts that is often proposed but seldom makes sense.

However, with the development of space tethers and high stength fibers, practical proposals have begun to appear:

  • HASTOL - a concept at Tethers Unlimited in which the end of a rotating tether will rendevous with a rocketplane at 100km and pick up a payload to take to orbit.


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey




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