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Twin-balloon airship hits high frontier

JP Aerospace

A camera on the remote-controlled Tandem airship captures the view from almost 100,000 feet up.

An unmanned twin-balloon airship rose to nearly 100,000 feet over the weekend — marking the latest milestone for an all-volunteer group that's aiming to send balloon-borne payloads into space.

"The big aerospace firms have been trying to do this for decades, spending hundreds of millions of dollars," John Powell, president of California-based JP Aerospace, said today in a news release. "We've spent about $30,000 and the past five years developing Tandem."

The remote-controlled Tandem airship was launched from Nevada's Black Rock Desert on Saturday, rose through extreme turbulence at an altitude of 40,000 to 60,000 feet, and reached the 95,085-foot mark, Powell said. A pilot on the ground used remote control to turn on two electric-powered, 6-foot-long propellers and guide the craft through a series of maneuvers. At the end of the mission, one of the balloons burst and the other balloon was released. Tandem descended to a soft landing, eased down by a row of five parachutes, Powell said.

Research balloons have risen to heights in excess of 135,000 feet (42 kilometers), but JP Aerospace claims that Tandem set an altitude record for a powered, steerable airship. "The highest before ours was the Army's sounder / HiSentinel, that went to 74,000 feet a few years ago," Powell told me in an email.

The entire Tandem craft weighed 80 pounds, with the balloons accounting for 20 pounds of that weight.

Powell said Tandem is being developed as a "high-altitude backhoe" that can be used as a launch platform for small research rockets, a mothership for hypersonic craft, a construction platform for high-altitude research stations and a precursor for JP Aerospace's "Airship to Orbit" program.

JP Aerospace

The Tandem airship has two balloons that are separated by a 30-foot-long carbon-fiber truss. The 6-foot-long propellers are designed to work in the thin atmosphere at an altitude of 20 miles.

More about balloons and near space:

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