It turns out you don’t need a rocket to explore the edge of space.
French startup Zefalto has just announced plans to send avid tourists to the stratosphere in a space balloon by 2025. Starting at €120,000 per person, the six-hour round trip would offer “unparalleled views” of the Earth and a gastronomic experience from the comfort of a luxury pressurized capsule called Celeste.
“We choose 25 km high because it is the height at which you are in the darkness of space, with 98% of the atmosphere below you so that you can enjoy the curvature of the earth in the blue line. You are in the darkness of space, but without the experience of zero gravity,” said Vincent Farret d’Astiès, founder of Zephalto and aerospace engineer, told Bloomberg.
The trip would include gourmet meals both before and after during the flight, aperitifs, wine tastings, stratographic photography and the opportunity to share the experience directly with the people of the world via Wi-Fi. Te capsule, currently designed by a French architect Joseph Dirand, would have 20 square meters of interior space, suitable for six passengers and two pilots.
The balloon, filled with helium or hydrogen, would depart from France and rise to 15 miles (25 km) in about an hour and a half. This is about twice as high as commercial jets, but well below the limit of space (which is 80-100 km above sea level). Once at peak altitude, the balloon floats for three hours to ensure you have enough time to enjoy the view before descending back to the ground.
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While this may seem like a lot of hot air, the startup, founded in 2016, has already gained the support of a number of high-profile players, including Airbus, Dassault, National Center for Space Studies (CNES), and European Space Agency (ESA).
Zephalto aims for 60 flights per year once it starts commercial operations. It has already completed three test flights with pilots on board, but none have reached full altitude. However, the company expects to reach the target altitude during a test flight later this year.
High-altitude manned balloons are not a new idea. In 1931, Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard ascended 10 miles (16 km) in a pressurized capsule attached to a helium balloon, becoming the first person ever to reach the stratosphere. Since then, manned high-altitude balloons have soared to more than 21 miles (34 km), though the technology has never gone commercial.
Space perspective And Worldview, both based in the US, are also developing their own versions of the technology. They both plan to launch even before Zephalto, in 2024. Spanish startup Zero2Infinity is also developing a space balloon, although it has not yet announced a launch date. Further Japanese startup Iwaya Giken has built a much smaller capsule that it hopes will cost only tens of thousands of dollars once the company reaches economies of scale.
Wthough perhaps not as appealing as shooting a rocket into real space as promised by billionaire companies like SpaceX, Blue originAnd Virgo Galacticproponents say ballooning offers some distinct benefits.
First, they are a lot cheaper. A Virgin Galactic flight get startedS for $450,000, while a trip aboard one of the SpaceX rockets could cost you tens of millions of dollars. Although the balloons do not fly as high as these rockets, with an average altitude between 50 and 120 km, participation they still fly high enough for viewers to experience the overview effect — an intense shift in perspective that many astronauts believe occurs when viewing Earth from above.
What’s more, despite numerous advances in recent years, rockets remain complex, expensive and unpredictable (SpaceX’s launch failed this week is a good example of that). Passengers must undergo thorough training and medical checks before even thinking about boarding. However, Zephalto says anyone healthy enough to fly in an airplane can board a space balloon.
The startup also claims that the first Celeste flight will mark the lowest amount of CO2 generated by a spaceflight: 26.6 kg for the entire 6-hour journey, equivalent to the carbon footprint of a pair of “jeans”. In contrast, a launch in 2016 included the Space X Falcon 9 rocket broadcast no less than 116 tons of CO2 in just 165 seconds.
All of this equates to what could become a more sustainable and accessible alternative to rocket-based space tourism.
However, Zephalto has not even completed its first commercial test flight or arrived at the final design for the capsule, and remains push back the launch date. The startup is also vague on a number of details, including where exactly the balloons will come from and whether it has received clearance to fly from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Other startups like Worldview are following suit tendency — it announced in 2013 that its space balloons would go into commercial use in 2016.
But despite the fact that the space balloon startup scene seems better at making promises than keeping them, Zephalto, like most of the other startups mentioned, is already taking pre-bookings. The launch could take place in two years – if all goes according to plan.