Two British pilots, Colin Prescot and Andy Elson, will attempt to fly the Qinetiq 1 balloon to 132,000 feet - twice as high as Concorde's cruising altitude. The attempt is weather dependent and the Met Office, which is sponsoring the event, has been working on a model to predict weather conditions in the stratosphere.
Met Office head of civil aviation services Dave Underwood said: 'The experience we have gained by producing live three-day forecasts for the space balloon project could enable unmanned telecoms airships to be put into the stratosphere as a low-cost, efficient alternative to communication satellites.' Satellites could be replaced within five to 10 years.
The Met Office's stratospheric model measures winds and temperatures from the ground to the upper atmosphere at approximately 1.3km intervals. The model will be used to predict the ideal weather opportunity for the launch of the balloon, expected to be sometime in the next three months. If successful, data from the launch will help the Met Office further develop its model for commercial applications.
According to the Met Office, accurate weather data is one of the major obstacles preventing the launch of stratospheric telecoms airships, which could hover at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, just above the jet stream. These ships have already been designed to run on regenerative fuel systems, using solar power by day and fuel cells at night. Electric motors power propellers that help keep the airship platforms stationary.
The current record holders for taking a balloon into space are two US Navy officers who reached 113,740 feet in 1961.
Qinetiq was formed by the Defence Evaluation & Research Agency and incorporates the bulk of the Ministry of Defence's non-nuclear research, technology, test and evaluation bases.