Project Loon was inspired by a radical question: what if free floating stratospheric balloons could bring affordable and abundant connectivity to the unconnected? This question led us to dozens of other technical and operational ‘what ifs’ like; ‘What if a balloon could spend hundreds of days in the stratosphere?’ Or, ‘What if we could create a mesh network in the sky? Or, ‘What if a balloon could find just the right stream of stratospheric winds to sail where they need to be?’
Although Loon’s journey has come to an end, we’re proud to share what we learned asking these ‘what if?’ questions with The Loon Collection. The Loon Collection includes Loon’s technical, operational, and scientific insights, as well as sensor data from every Loon balloon flight. Just as it wouldn't have been possible for the Loon team to launch and orbit balloons along the edge of space without the work of scientists and innovators before us, we hope these resources will support future researchers, scientists and innovators in asking "what if?" questions of their own.
A Loon balloon floating in the stratosphere
Insights about the stratosphere’s wind and weather systems can help scientists with more accurate climate modelling and forecasting down on Earth. Over the last decade Loon’s balloons collected data from this little-explored part of our world to help navigate the balloons. Today we’re pleased to be making Loon's stratospheric wind and weather measurements as well as electrical measurements collected by "Stormtrooper" (a sensor developed to detect electrical measurements from thunderstorms) publicly available. Loon’s data is already supporting new work in climate science and we hope this new collection will help scientists and researchers as they work to better understand our changing climate.
When Loon started out, some of the first places we turned to understand the stratosphere were public data sets like those from NOAA and ECMWF. This data provided us with our first understanding of how Loon’s balloons might navigate the winds. Since then, Loon’s balloons explored the stratosphere for just shy of a decade, flying more than 70 million kilometers — enough to make 180 trips to the moon — collecting temperature, pressure, and wind readings every 60 seconds. This data was crucial to Loon building longer-lasting balloons and more advanced navigation systems and offers a rich new look at this lightly explored part of our world. Just as the public data sets helped Loon almost 10 years ago, we hope this data helps researchers, scientists, builders and innovators with their work.
Testing the impact of lightning on Loon’s hardware in the lab
One of the biggest 'what ifs' our team explored was; ‘What if the stratosphere could become a communications superhighway, filling in long-standing gaps in connectivity on earth?’ This question led to Loon collaborating with many like-minded organisations to advance innovation in stratospheric flight and communications technologies and to co-found the HAPS Alliance. To support ongoing innovation in the HAPS industry and the work of our partners, The Loon Collection includes The Loon Library — an archive of Loon’s technical, operational, and scientific insights. Along with a deep dive on our technical and operational processes, the Loon Library provides a glimpse at some of the concepts and prototypes that were in development when Loon wound down — like stratospheric airships and an aviation traffic management system. By making this work publicly available we hope to support ongoing advances in high altitude platforms and encourage others in the HAPS ecosystem to explore possibilities that excite us.
“Bumpy football”: a prototype airship we were testing in our labs in California
We’re also transferring a number of patents to partners that continue to work on stratospheric ballooning and networking. These include Raven, a company Loon worked with on balloon development, and SoftBank Corp., the parent of HAPSMobile, a company that is building a solar-powered UAV for connectivity purposes. We also made a non-assertion pledge for the free use of 270 patents and applications related to launching, navigation, fleet management and more, to support further stratospheric exploration, research, and technical development. We’re excited to have partners building on the work that Loon started and to see technologies like the high bandwidth optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons in the stratosphere live on in Project Taara. Although the end result of Loon’s journey isn’t what we’d hoped for, there are important lessons Loon learned along the way that have the potential to support the work of future explorers and innovators. We hope that The Loon Collection helps future generations of engineers, communications experts and climate scientists to explore their own radical questions.
Some of the Loon team inside a balloon
Editor’s note: If you’re in Washington, D.C. over the next few months you can catch a final glimpse of a Loon balloon at the Smithsonian FUTURES exhibit. FUTURES is the first ever national exhibit on the future and will take place in the historic Arts and Industries Building from November 2021 to Summer 2022.