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A fleet of sensor-packed balloons will hit the stratosphere this summer

Marc DeAngelis
World View

World View wants to occupy the sky. Its sensor-packed balloons sit in the stratosphere, taking in data and imaging the ground. The company completed test flights to tweak flight and navigation issues, and is now ready for its balloons to operate in the stratosphere on a long-term basis. A preliminary fleet of Stratolites -- equipped with various sensors -- will be released over North and Central America this summer, helping scientists, meteorologists and governments to gather data that is more accurate than that of typical satellites.

Stratolites are positioned at a lower altitude than most other satellites. This helps them get better readings, especially when it comes to imaging the ground. The current equipment takes photos of the Earth at a ground sample distance (GSD) of 15 centimeters, meaning each pixel in the resulting image represents 15 centimeters of space. Future Stratolites will be upgraded to capture images at a GSD of just 5 centimeters.

World View says that this summer's launch is for its first wave of Stratolites -- the full fleet is expected to be released by the middle of 2021. The startup is taking a different tack than SpaceX and its fleet of Starlink satellites, which are positioned much further away from the Earth -- World View's Stratolites will be about 10 to 30 kilometers up, whereas SpaceX's satellites are 1,000 kilometers from the ground.

The proliferation of satellites should net useful data and insights. However, it remains to be seen how these companies will keep dead hardware out of the sky and space.