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Private space tourism balloon passes flight test, may go commercial in 2016

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A balloon that could bring passengers to the edge of space has passed its first flight test, carried out on 18 June. Liftoff occurred at 7:45 local time.

World View will offer flights in the highest reaches of the atmosphere, lasting two hours. Space tourists could pay as little as $75,000 and flights could begin as soon as 2016.

The test flight took place in Roswell, New Mexico, and set a new world record for highest flight by a parafoil. These are flexible material, like kites and parachutes that inflate to an airfoil during flight.

During the five-hour test, the craft rose gracefully up to 120,000 feet, a height where the sky above is black, and the curvature of the planet can clearly be seen. The vehicle then descended to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the parafoil filled with air, transforming into a large, flexible wing. These devices are usually used at altitudes of 30,000 feet or under.

This first flight test validated ground control and launch operations procedures which will be required to launch passengers to the edge of space. The team was also able to test deployment procedures of the backup parafoil, to be used in case of emergencies during landing. Landing and guidance equipment and techniques were also successfully tested.

"We couldn't be any more excited about the results from this test flight. It represents a foundational achievement that moves us one step closer to offering a life-changing experience to our Voyagers," Jane Poynter, World View CEO, said.

The vehicle used in the test, Tycho, is just one-tenth the size of the full-scale craft that will be used to ferry passengers. The Voyager module will consist of a pressurized cabin, complete with bar and bathroom. Internet access will be available on the craft, allowing people to share their experience, in text, picture and video, with friends and family on the ground.

World View began planning and testing of vehicle components in 2011. Such a vehicle will be required to meet all the safety requirements mandated of unmanned satellites by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The company plans to conduct launches at dawn, allowing travelers the chance to see a sunrise from high above the surface of the Earth. The vehicle could also provide communications and surveillance duties, as well as become a launching pad for small payloads headed to space.

World View is now accepting reservations from potential passengers. A $5,000 deposit is required to reserve a spot aboard the vehicle.

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