Project Loon Internet Balloon Circumnavigates Earth In 22 Days
April 4, 2014

Project Loon Internet Balloon Circumnavigates Earth In 22 Days

Peter Suciu for - Your Universe Online

Perhaps Jules Verne and his fictional character Phileas Fogg would be impressed. In the pages of the 1873 novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” Fogg barely circumnavigated the Earth in the time set by his friends at the Reform Club – but now one of Google’s Project Loon balloons, dubbed the Ibis-167, has managed the journey in just 22 days.

Google unveiled the ambitious Project Loon last June, as a way to provide true worldwide Internet access via a network of balloons. This 19th-century technology – which seems straight out of something Verne might have written – was deemed the best option for providing Internet access to remote villages and far-flung farmers.

Project Loon is one of several seemingly “out there” concepts that has been developed at Google’s X Lab, the company’s adventurous ideas team.

The first balloon took flight in August, but not before Microsoft founder and multi-billionaire Bill Gates offered his skepticism – questioning whether some other technology would be beneficial to the developing world.

However, Google has moved forward and this week completed the first circumnavigation of the world. Not only might this effort have impressed the fictional Reform Club but it apparently impressed Google’s own real world team, which in November predicted that the balloon could circle the Earth three times in 100 days.

“One of our balloons has had quite a journey over the past few weeks,” Google noted on the official Google+ page for Project Loon. “It did a lap around the world in 22 days, and has just clocked the project’s 500,000th kilometer as it begins its second lap. It enjoyed a few loop-de-loops over the Pacific ocean before heading east on the winds toward Chile and Argentina, and then made its way back around near Australia and New Zealand. Along the way, it caught a ride on the Roaring Forties — strong west-to-east winds in the southern hemisphere that act like an autobahn in the sky, where our balloons can quickly zoom over oceans to get to where people actually need them.”

The tech giant also noted that traversing the stratosphere has some challenges, especially at this time of the year as winds can change direction and make wind paths hard to predict.

“Since last June, we’ve been using the wind data we’ve collected during flights to refine our prediction models and are now able to forecast balloon trajectories twice as far in advance,” Google’s Loon team added. “In addition, the pump that moves air in or out of the balloon has become three times more efficient, making it possible to change altitudes more rapidly to quickly catch winds going in different directions. There were times, for example, when this balloon could have been pulled into the polar vortex – large, powerful wind currents that whip around in a circle near the stratosphere in the polar region – but these improvements enabled us to maneuver around it and stay on course. We can spend hours and hours running computer simulations, but nothing teaches us as much as actually sending the balloons up into the stratosphere during all four seasons of the year.”

The Ibis-167, which has already logged a lot of frequent flier miles, is now beginning its second loop of the planet.