Kuang-Chi set to launch ground-breaking balloon flight into ‘near space’

Company says if the trip – using a 2.5m diameter cabin, carrying a live turtle – is successful, human passengers could be flying to such heights within three years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 6:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 6:22pm

Kuang-Chi Group, the Shenzhen-based technology company, will launch a huge balloon at the weekend lifting a 2.5-metre-diameter cabin carrying a live turtle, to test the future possibility of bringing humans to “near-space” heights, or about twice that of commercial airlines.

If all goes to plan, the company hopes to commercialise the service within two years, with trial plans already well-advanced for human passengers by 2019.

The company tested its “Traveler I”, a similar design, in the skies above New Zealand last year. But Sunday is the first time a craft of this type has carried a live animal to such heights.

Near space is the region of earth’s atmosphere that lies between 20 and 100 kilometers (65,000 and 328,000 feet) above sea level, above the height at which civil aircraft can fly, but below that of satellites.

The “Traveler II” craft will take off on Sunday at around 7am from a remote area in the Gobi Desert near Korla, in northwest China’s Xinjiang province.

It should take around half an hour to reach its maximum altitude, where it will stay for up to two hours, depending on the air conditions.

During the ascent, the passenger – a 4-cm long, pig-nosed turtle – will have to share its seat with various optical camera equipment and sensors to record the conditions.

The helium-filled balloon is about 40 metres in diameter and along with the cabin, the whole craft weights about two tonnes.

Compared with satellites, near space aircraft cost significantly less to make, launch and operate, said Kuang-Chi’s chief engineer for the project, Dr Zhou Fei.

“Near space has remained unexplored for human beings. If our Traveler II can land successfully with the turtle alive, it means China’s near space exploration technology will be the best in the world.”

American company World View has been testing a similar balloon-lifted craft in the deserts of Arizona.

Kuang-Chi, which is chaired by Ruopeng Liu, has invested over 300 million yuan developing the project since 2014, when it joined the global race to get tourists into space and near-space, at relatively low cost.

At that height, passengers will experience some zero gravity, great views without the need for any cumbersome spacesuits, and the craft can return to earth without going into full-orbit mode.

“In near space, the outside conditions are very harsh for any animal with temperatures of minus 60-70 degrees and atmospheric pressure as low as only 5,000 Pascal (Pa), compared with surface pressure on the ground about 101300 Pa,” said Zhou.

“But the turtle should be safe inside the cabin, which will be heated between zero and 20 degrees Celsius, and have similar atmospheric pressure to being on the ground.” Zhou said.

“Compared with satellites, the vertical speed and forward speed of our balloon-based aircraft will be slow, like people rising inside a fast lift, with no weightlessness.”

Founded in 2010, Kuang-Chi started as an electronic material and communications equipment provider. Its subsidiary KuangChi Science Limited became a listed company in Hong Kong in 2014.

With central and local authority funding, the company has invested in a number of key future strategic national industries such as aerospace technology, high-precision machinery, advanced biomaterials and new-energy vehicles.

The company has also invested in several overseas companies to develop futuristic technologies, including Canadian solar powered aircraft company Solar Ship and New Zealand jetpack maker Martin Aircraft Company.

On Monday this week, the company launched a US$250 million fund to invest in start-ups and early-stage tech companies globally.