Facebook PixelAbove-the-clouds stargazing from reusable aerostats - the experience provided by observatories
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Above-the-clouds stargazing from reusable aerostats - the experience provided by observatories

Image credit: https://textinmotion.com/media/backgrounds/000/000/460/background/full/AboveClouds-BG-1.jpg; https://www.businessinsider.com/helium-space-aerospace-virgin-galactic-blue-origin-spacex-space-tourism-2020-10?r=US&IR=T

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Povilas S
Povilas S Dec 16, 2022
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Use helium balloons or similar aerostats designed to carry passengers above the clouds to make the observation of celestial bodies possible on cloudy nights.
Why?
  • On cloudy nights observatories that are located at relatively low altitudes can't provide stargazing events and users who book those in advance get them canceled and have to come another time.
  • Some important, rare, and short-lived celestial events, like comet passings, moon eclipses, planets or stars being more brightly visible, etc. might be completely missed due to cloudy weather. Like the recent Earth and Mars alignment on December 8th - it was cloudy where I live so I missed it. This inspired the idea.
  • Just the rising above the clouds at night part alone should be an amazing experience, more impressive than seeing the sun above the clouds on a cloudy day, I suppose. When you see this during the airplane flight the experience is limited because you only have a tiny window to look out from and are sitting in an enclosed space. Doing this with a passenger balloon the process would be slower and the view way more spherical and direct.
  • Depending on a geographical location, weather conditions, season of the year, and other factors, this might be a relatively inexpensive and convenient service.
  • Commercial balloon flights to the stratosphere are on the rise now. One American company is offering a seat on their upcoming flight for 50,000 $, which is comparably affordable. However, to use balloons just to rise above the clouds would be way easier to execute and therefore should be way, way cheaper.
How it works:
The observatory establishes infrastructure to carry passengers above the clouds which involves a reusable aerostat or a few of those. Whenever the weather is cloudy but still favorable enough for the flight, they offer a balloon flight above the clouds to perform the observation up there. The gear, like telescopes and other means required for a smooth observatory experience, is carried in the passenger car. One or a few staff members fly together to ensure safety and guide the observation.
Technical details:
Clouds stay at a height between 2 and 7 km above the ground on average. So the passenger-carrying aerostat would have to rise to those heights. This comes with a number of following challenges - a drop in oxygen levels, temperature drop, increased wind speed, reduced atmospheric pressure.
I believe in conditions where clouds are at low heights (2-4 km) aerostats with open passenger cars can be used, similar to hot air balloon baskets. The main inconvenience here would be the humidity while moving through clouds, a drop in temperature (-6.5 °C for 1 km), and an increase in wind speed. However, with proper clothing, it seems doable.
Having a closed passenger car similar to those used in stratospheric balloon flights brings the benefit of regulated microclimate and oxygen levels, but this would increase the cost of the aerostat and hence increase the price of the flight. A closed car also limits the view of the sky and there's no direct contact with the surrounding atmosphere, in other words, lack of experience of being under an open sky. However, a closed car with large windows would, perhaps, be the best option when rising to greater heights.
A good third option would be to have a passenger car with a transparent slide-off roof which would be removed in favorable conditions and closed when moving through the clouds and at great heights or harsh weather conditions.
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Creative contributions

Mapping the locations where the balloons could be launched

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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Dec 23, 2022
Since the balloon would travel above the clouds, we need to keep in mind that it should not cross flight paths. So locations, where such balloons could be launched, should be decided in collaboration with air control management teams. An alternative (but a secondary option) is to use a flight tracker app to check flight paths and then set up launch bases. Maybe create an app showing the locations where you could launch your balloon. Keep it updated based on changing flight paths.
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Povilas S
Povilas Sa month ago
Yes, it's important. There are many similar problems that are important to be considered and addressed. The rising through the clouds part for example - you have zero visibility while in the clouds and the wind can carry you off-course which can be not only unwanted but also dangerous.
However, concerning the latter, there's another benefit of launching the aerostats near observatories - observatories usually engage in meteorological monitoring so they have good real-time data of that location always available and can adapt the aerostat launches accordingly. When the weather conditions are too risky, the flights won't be launched.
The aerostats should also have instruments to help navigate the flight in low visibility conditions and prevent crossing paths with other aircraft.
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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarnia month ago
Povilas S Yes, the balloon could be controlled from a control room on the Earth remotely, similar to commercial flights. This will ensure timely navigation of the balloon if it sways off course. Even in low visibility during travel, the remote control would be beneficial.
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General comments

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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković2 months ago
One of the best ideas on the site. I'm wondering whether this could be applied to areas that don't have observatories and with strong light pollution. It would be a way cheaper route to getting people interested in astronomy than building new observatories in areas that don't have them or aren't at high altitudes.
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Povilas S
Povilas S2 months ago
Miloš Stanković Thank you. I might be wrong, but I think that above the clouds, especially if the cloud layer is thick enough, the obstructing effects of light pollution should be negligible if present at all. Clouds are good at reflecting and scattering light. If you are below them then they make it worse, but if you are above it's a benefit. I thought about adding this as another "why" of the idea. Even if you are in a densely populated urban area, but the night is cloudy and you are able to rise above the clouds, you could have a nice, unobstructed view of the stars like in the countryside, I believe.
But you still need a way to conveniently observe the sky on clear nights. Using balloons would not make sense then. You also need a place to store the aerostats and all the gear and a convenient open space (like a field) to lift them up from and bring down to. Observatories are usually built in such open spaces so that's another benefit of combining the two.
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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković2 months ago
Povilas S It would be cool to organize an event in a city where all the lights (or at least all the non-vital lights) would be turned off at night for an hour on a set date to mitigate the light pollution and allow the inhabitants to star gaze.
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Povilas S
Povilas S2 months ago
Miloš Stanković That's an idea. It could work with small towns I think. With big cities it would be too complicated to achieve since it's not feasible to turn off all the major lights in the whole city and light pollution can affect the visibility of the sky from long distances.
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Darko Savic
Darko Savic2 months ago
A toned-down version of this could be a Youtube channel that regularly goes live while launching a high-quality telescope above the clouds
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