A stratostation as envisioned by JPAerospace. Each 'arm' is a lifting gas envelope about one mile long. Image copyright JPAerospace.

Tech Level: 14

A stratostation is an advanced, manned airship designed to skirt the upper levels of the atmosphere (sometimes euphemistically called ‘Near Space’) for long periods of time, possibly many years. Like the International Space Station, it is intended to eventually be continually manned with crews rotating on and off. These are sometimes called Dark Sky Stations because their operational altitudes would be high enough that the sky would appear continually black, day or night.

Statostations are designed to float between 100,000 and 140,000+ feet up, and act as Near Space launch platforms, surveillance centers, communication relays, scientific laboratories, weapon platforms, and/or tourist destinations.

The development of such structures would depend on the proliferation of a new wave of advanced airship technology, and much further research into very high altitude airship travel. They are the manned alternative to unmanned Stratellite technology. More information on Stratellites and advanced airships in general are linked to at the end of this article.

The chief advocate for Near Space development is JPAerospace, a California-based company currently developing lighter-than-air vehicles, including projects for the US military. Their ultimate long-range goal is to construct a stratostation more than two miles across. The station would be composed of five nearly mile-long, non-rigid gas envelopes filled with helium , all connected to a central hub that would contain the pressurized habitats where personnel (stratonauts?) would live and work. The station would look in some ways like an enormous, airborne starfish.

Th gas envelopes need to be that large in order to provide adequate lift to the payload at such extreme heights, where the air is considerably thinner than the surface. They would divided into cells and composed of tough, lightweight composite polymer materials. Exactly how much mass the station could comfortably support at 25+ miles up is not disclosed (and the author sadly doesn’t have the technical expertise in that field to calculate it,) but given one of its major intended purposes is fueling space-bound rockets, it would have to be at least a dozen tons or so. Probably its altitude would vary depending on how much payload it carried. Fully loaded, it would float nearer to 100,000 feet, unloaded it would be up around its ceiling of 140,000 feet.

The lifting envelopes would likely be covered over in thin, lightweight solar cells to provide power to the station. Given the surface area provided, these would provide ample energy for all the structure’s needs, with fuel cells and batteries used for back-ups and nighttime operations.

As far as living requirements, the stratostation would essentially be a space station, but not actually in space. The air at those altitudes is far too thin to breathe, and the outside temperatures averages minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything that is required for a space station module would also be required for the stratostation—pressurized environment, bottled air, recycling systems, rebreather systems, etc. The stratostation would also need radiation protection as well, though not as much as for an orbital space station.

There would of course be some differences as well between a stratostation and a true space station. For one, the stratostation is not in free fall, and gravity on board would feel almost exactly as it did on the surface. EVA excursions are possible, as the stratonauts would occasionally have to climb out to make repairs to the station or to the gas envelopes. This would definitely require both a pressure suit and a tether. Unlike in space, the stratonaut is no danger of floating away; instead he would fall if fully separated from the station, and it’s a very, very long way down.

However, one big advantage of a stratostation over a space station is that the stratostation could actually land safely on the ground if need be, and would probably actually do so on a yearly basis for maintenance and repair. Where exactly one could safely park a two-mile-wide airship is up for debate.

Much like a stratellite, a stratostation could also hover over one spot continuously, using small electric prop motors for station keeping. One hundred thousand plus feet up is above the jet stream and is out of reach of most weather and winds, so staying more or less stationary would not be a major hurdle to overcome.

JPAerospace envisions its stratostation mostly as a vital rung in a space launch system. A rocket would be lifted to the station via high-altitude balloon or airship. Once docked to the station, it would be fully fueled and recharged, then launched the rest of the way. This way, the rocket can be made smaller, lighter, and less expensive, as it would not have to waste so much of its fuel just getting out of the lower atmosphere. Airships ferrying fuel and rockets to the stratostation may prove considerably cheaper than launching rocket straight form the ground.

Stratostations could also serve many of the same functions as a stratellite, performing surveillance and communication operations. They could also prove very valuable as high-altitude laboratories, and for testing space habitat systems for future space stations and missions. A stratostation could also prove very valuable as a tourist destination, allowing visitors a space-station like experience and view without the expense and trouble of actually going fully into space.

A stratostation could also function as a weapons platform, carrying lightweight attack drones and cruise missiles. Given its eye-in-the-sky position, it would function as an excellent fast-response option in any region it is hovering over. However, though most missile can’t reach its altitude, for those that could the stratostation would be nothing but a fat, slow, very vulnerable target.

Very advanced versions of this technology may use hydrogen or even vacuum chambers for lift, allowing for greater altitude and/or payload capacity. Structures using many of the same features as stratostations have been discussed to possibly build floating bases and colonies in the atmospheres of Venus and the gas giant planets, but those will be discussed in future articles.


Advanced Airships


Article added 12/29/10