These Surreal-Looking Balloons Aren't Just Nice to Look At

Thursday July 05, 2018 Written by Koren Helbig

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Imagine if flying were as easy as floating on water. No giant engines churning fossil fuels to get off the ground, just giant sculptures floating gracefully through the sky, buoyed by the sun’s heat. It would be truly emission-free flying, and it already exists (kind of), thanks to the global Aerocene project.

To fulfill this dream, Aerocene started by creating the world’s coolest backpack: a wearable nylon kit containing everything you need to dabble in zero-emissions flying. Folks can borrow a backpack (or download instructions on building one themselves), then launch the huge Explorer within.

Once in the air, it functions as a weather balloon, gathering data about our atmosphere through a small camera and other gadgets. First, though, you’ll have to convince a bunch of mates to run headlong into the wind, holding the enormous sculpture aloft until it inflates enough for the sun to take over. “It’s just physics,” says Aerocene’s Joaquín Ezcurra. “The dark fabric absorbs the light and heat energy from the sun, heating the air inside. Since hot air weighs less than cold air, the balloon becomes buoyant.”

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Seeing the Explorer dance in the sky above is a mesmerising experience, Ezcurra says. “Every person who has flown one of our solar balloons has sensed something that will stay with them forever. You see all these movements that are quite unique. I compare it to staring at a fire. It’s enchanting.”

But Aerocene’s a whole lot more than just the Explorer backpack.

The project started in 2007 when Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno began glueing old plastic bags together.

Pretty soon he realised the resulting giant sculptures became lighter than air when heated, prompting a dramatic rethinking of aeronautics. Could emissions-free commercial flights eventually be a reality? Perhaps.

In 2015, Aerocene managed to lift seven people off the ground – and keep them there for almost three hours – in the world’s first fully solar flight.

That experimental flight clocked up zero emissions, a feat even hot air balloons can’t compete with. “It’s amazing how much pollution nowadays comes from air transport,” Ezcurra says. “As humanity, we have to develop a new relationship with our planet.”

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On the downside, that 2015 flight didn’t actually go anywhere – the sculpture remained tethered by volunteers clinging to ropes, as its venting and control systems hadn’t yet been tested. Still, participants felt they’d taken a giant step toward working out how humans might fly without fossil fuels. “There’s a term in the world of science, known as ‘speculative theory’. It basically means if you can’t imagine a different future, you won’t be able to create one,” Ezcurra says. “Many times, stuff dreamed up by Hollywood came to reality after it was imagined. I think our project has some of this. If you’re not proposing an alternative, you’re never going to change.”

This story appears in Smith Journal volume 27, which is on sale now.

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Photos: Creative Commons BY-SA AU 3.0