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‘Near-space’ military aircraft on fast track

The U.S. Air Force could start operating communication relay aircraft in "near space" within a year, a top space official says.
/ Source: Reuters

The U.S. Air Force could start operating aircraft in “near space,” the no man’s land above 65,000 feet (20,000 meters) but below an outer-space orbit, within a year, a top U.S. Air Force space official said Tuesday.

The Air Force is actively exploring ways to use helium-filled free-floating balloons and remotely controlled gliderlike aircraft to protect U.S. convoys, track friendly forces, assess battle damage and boost communications between groups of troops in military hot spots like Iraq.

Near-space craft could give the military new ways to achieve those missions and save money over current aerial vehicles and satellites.

Lt. Gen. Daniel Leaf, vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, cited a planned demonstration this month of a balloon-type aircraft that would ascend to 60,000 to 70,000 feet (18,000 to 22,000 meters) above Phoenix, Ariz., where it would test relaying communications between ground troops, a hypothetical air support center and fighter jets patrolling the air.

That balloon, Combat SkySat Phase I, was built by Space Data Corp., and carries a signal repeater for the U.S. Army’s PRC 148 hand-held radio, according to published reports.

Another demonstration of something known as the “Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle” is planned later this month or next in Oregon, an Air Force spokesman said.

Next year and next decade
The Air Force could start using near-space aircraft to relay communications within the next year, but it could take up to a decade to develop other aircraft that would take on more sophisticated missions such as surveillance, Leaf said.

Leaf said the Air Force was evaluating about 10 different concepts for aircraft that could be used for surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance and perhaps to augment a fleet of Global Positioning Satellites orbiting the earth.

He also said the Air Force had no plans to put weapons aboard these aircraft.

“There is a lot of excitement in the military, and the Air Force in particular, about near space and the potential it offers,” Leaf told Reuters in a telephone interview from his office at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

'Not a passing fad'
“This is not a passing fad or fancy,” he said, although he acknowledged that industry faced significant challenges in developing materials that could withstand extreme ultraviolet radiation in the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.

More work was also needed on ways to allow aerostats and other aircraft to hover in one place without the tethers that are used at lower altitudes, where such aircraft are already used for border patrol missions and other surveillance.

Near-space aircraft, likely to cost far less than current unmanned aerial vehicles or satellites launched into space, could also help cover gaps in satellite coverage that could emerge as U.S. national security satellites age, Leaf said.

Moreover, near-space aircraft such as balloons and gliders could be programmed to land in friendly territory, where they could be recovered and reused, unlike satellites.

But he stressed that near-space aircraft would complement, rather than replace, outer-space aircraft and jets that fly closer to the ground.

Leaf said the Air Force was due to respond to five specific areas identified for further study by the end of this week, with an eye to securing some initial funding for near space in the fiscal 2006 budget, which is now being finalized.

But Leaf acknowledged there was tough competition for defense dollars in the current budget climate.

“It’s got to earn its way to the table,” he said.