Google's Project Loon balloon circles Earth in a record 22 days

The tech giant may have found its darling with Ibis-167. Surfing air currents and dodging the polar vortex, the Wi-Fi carrying balloon beat all odds in its recent journey.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read

Google's Project Loon Ibis-167 balloon flies high in the sky. Google

Google's Project Loon Wi-Fi broadcasting balloons can feasibly circle the Earth in 33 days -- a feat Ibis-167 recently tried to pull off. Jumping onto swift air currents and quickly changing altitudes, Ibis-167 was actually able to beat that time and circumnavigate the globe in a record 22 days.

"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," Google wrote on Project Loon's Google+ account. "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."

Project Loon is Google's attempt to bring Internet access to everyone on the globe via high-flying balloons. The company announced the project last June explaining that the balloons are solar-powered, remote-controlled, and can navigate stratospheric winds 12 miles above the surface of the Earth -- far higher than most planes travel. Similar to the way satellite Internet works, the balloons can communicate with special antennas and receiver stations on the ground.

Before Ibis-167, Google had floated Project Loon balloons up into the atmosphere -- in all the project has traveled 311,000 miles and experienced wind speeds ranging from 2 knots to 75 knots -- but it hadn't yet seen such a speedy traverse around the world.

With its Project Loon test flights, Google has collected wind data to refine its prediction models to better forecast balloon flight trajectories. Additionally, the company has enhanced its balloon air pumps to become more efficient, which allows for the balloon to quickly change altitudes to jump onto faster air currents or avoid adverse winds.

"There were times, for example, when this balloon [Ibis-167] 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," Google wrote.

Ibis-167 is now starting its second lap around the world. Google wrote that the more time it sails Project Loon balloons above the Earth, the better it can learn, progress, and make its Wi-Fi broadcasting moon shot a reality.

"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," Google wrote.

Ibis-167's flight path as it circled the world. Google