Lofty vision. QinetiQ's high-flying balloon and Zephyr 3 solar plane (inset) soar in this artist's conception.

High-Altitude Balloon Bursts

ST. IVES, U.K.--An attempt to surpass the world altitude record for manned balloon flight was called off here this morning after the balloon's delicate skin ripped while it was being filled with helium. The mishap delays experiments to probe a relatively unexplored region of the atmosphere and postpones the trial run of Zephyr 3, a prototype of a solar-powered plane designed to fly as high as 40 kilometers.

The mission, sponsored by the British technology development company QinetiQ, would have carried pilots Andy Elson and Colin Prescot from their launch off the coast of Cornwall to the very top of the stratosphere in a bid to break the 41-year-old altitude record. The layer between 30 km and 60 km is also sometimes called the "ignorosphere," as it is beyond the reach of conventional planes and weather balloons.

The balloon's gondola is equipped with instruments designed to measure cosmic radiation and a flypaper-like trap to collect space dust. "The dust gives clues about the chemical composition of the early universe," says Brian Sheen, director of the Roseland Observatory in Cornwall, which designed the probe. On the balloon, the trap would have flown twice as high as on the U2 spy planes that are normally used as dust collectors.

The balloon, which stretches as high as the Empire State Building when inflated, also would have given a ride to Zephyr 3. Built by QinetiQ, the plane would have circled the balloon on a 450-meter tether. High-altitude planes like Zephyr could become scientific workhorses in the upper stratosphere because they combine the mobility of planes with the bird's-eye view of Earth and the atmosphere normally only available from satellites, says Alan Rogers, an atmospheric scientist at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. "They promise data about phenomena that are normally only understood through modeling."

But fulfillment of that promise will have to wait for another day, now that the mission has missed a rare seasonal weather window for launch. The balloon will be grounded until engineers figure out what went wrong, and Zephyr 3 will now be looking for other opportunities to get aloft, says Alan Haskell, director for space technology at QinetiQ. Although take-off from a runway is possible, balloons provide a safer way to launch test flights of the 12-kilogram plane. Still, he sees a silver lining in today's incident: "Normally I attend satellite launches and they tend to blow up. Today was only a minor mishap."

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