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Surprising Science

“Near-Space” Tourism Could Be Here By 2014

A Spanish company has successfully completed a test of a balloon that could take passengers 20 miles above Earth, just a few miles short of Felix Baumgartner’s October launch spot.

What’s the Latest Development?

Earlier this month, the Spain-based company Zero 2 Infinity successfully launched a helium-filled test balloon that carried a capsule containing a humanoid robot to 32 kilometers (almost 20 miles) above the Earth. This is far short of the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude that marks the official start of space, and a few kilometers more should be enough, says CEO Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, for paying customers to experience stunning views of the planet on the way up as well as a brief period of weightlessness on the way down.

What’s the Big Idea?

Zero 2 Infinity already has customers on a waitlist who have paid part of the initial ticket price of €110,000 ($143,000) for a seat on future capsules, which will be big enough to accommodate up to two pilots and four passengers. It’s also gotten funding from several big investors, including the world’s second-largest balloon manufacturer and Spain’s third-largest bank. Lopez-Urdiales says that the relatively low ticket cost could open many more people’s eyes to a shared experience of the “overview effect,” a term coined to describe increased appreciation of environmental issues after seeing the planet from space. He also envisions the balloon technology being used to carry scientific experiments high above the Earth.

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