Good news, blimp boys: the Air Force is slowly starting to line up behind a plan to put airships on the edge of the atmosphere.According to Inside Defense, a 90-day Air Force study has concluded that there would be "military utility" in putting blimps, balloons, and drones in near space -- between 65,000 and 350,000 above sea level. Up there, they could serve as cheap substitutes for satellites, relaying communications and snooping on foes. They might be able to carry equipment, effectively becoming giant U-Hauls in the sky. And this could be done, at least in the balloons' case, without "significantly strain[ing] existing infrastructure or requir[ing] large amounts of equipment or personnel to operate the balloons," Inside Defense says.
The Air Force has conducted a number of near space demonstrations in recent months. Three tests, carried out last November, December and January, placed tactical radios on balloons, which then operated between 65,000 and 80,000 feet above sea level...In March, the Air Force Space Battlelab conducted a proof of concept demonstration for a radio relay system with Combat SkySat I in Arizona. That [system] can now be used in theater operations [places like Iraq, in otherwords].SkySat II, which the service hopes to test in FY-06 [fiscal year 2006], will demonstrate a payload return system. Such a system would permit heavier, more expensive and more sensitive payloads than were placed on the SkySat I, which utilized payloads that were destroyed after leaving the coverage area.