NASA eyes airships for long-haul stratospheric research missions

The humble airship could rise again as a valuable scientific tool, if NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory goes ahead with a planned challenge to develop record-breaking stratospheric airships.

It has issued a request for information about the achievability of a potential challenge, which if it were to go ahead would see $2-3m available in prize money.

The agency believes that airships have serious potential for scientific research, due to their potential ability to remain in the air in a stable position for long periods.

“We are seeking to take astronomy and Earth science to new heights by enabling a long-duration, suborbital platform for these kinds of research,” explained Jason Rhodes, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

By attaching a telescope to an airship located in the stratosphere – the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere above its weather systems – scientists would be able to get high-resolution images, and thus detailed data, about celestial bodies such as stars.

They would also be able to use an airship as a floating weather station to capture data about weather and climate change.

“You would be able to follow weather patterns, even get above a hurricane. A satellite can’t do that because its orbit can’t be changed,” said Rhodes.


The challenge would be split into two tiers, both of which are designed to achieve milestones in airship development that have never before been reached.

The first tier would be to develop an airship capable of carrying 44 pounds (20kg) and successfully getting it to remain at an altitude of 65,000ft (20km) for 20 hours.

The advanced, second tier would be to do the same but with a far greater carrying capacity – 440 pounds (200kg) – for a far longer period – 200 hours.

In both cases the airship could take the form of a blimp, with a soft body, or a zeppelin, with a rigid body, but would need to be lighter than air, powered and navigable.

The target altitude is an important feature of the challenge, as the agency believes it would be the perfect height to achieve the desired projects.

“The 65,000-foot mark is the sweet spot where the airship would get as high as possible while still having enough air to propel against, because it needs propulsion to stay in the same spot. It’s also a good altitude in terms of average wind speed,” said Rhodes.

While airships have previously reached this altitude, they have never been able to remain at such a height for more than 8 hours, making the targets of 20 and 200 a big ask.

Weather balloons can achieve this height for longer periods, but cannot maintain a static location in the way that would be required.


In addition to research, the agency also believes that airships flying at such altitudes could provide commercial benefits.

One of the biggest is telecommunications. Airships’ ability to remain static makes them an ideal way to bring wireless internet to remote areas, something that Google is already looking into with its Loon project.

Other companies are also looking at airships as a means of transporting heavy cargo to difficult-to-access regions.

Ultimately, if the challenge were to go ahead all sorts of unexpected uses for airships could emerge.

“We’re only limited by our imagination,” added Rhodes.

Featured image courtesy of Mike Hughes (Eagre Interactive)/Keck Institute for Space Studies via NASA JPL. Inline image two courtesy of Aeros.

Colonisation roadblock? No guarantee humans can reproduce in space

It’s just 11 years until Mars One wants to have established a permanent human colony on Mars, but we don’t know enough about how our bodies will react to long-duration exploration missions, a new study has said.

This covers everything from how our behaviour will change to whether we will be able to successfully reproduce.

Sex and gender factors should be taken into account when designing future human spaceflight experiments and research programmes, the Journal of Women’s Health – published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. – has said.

The six papers featured in the journal’s latest issue reflected on current and unpublished research into how our bodies may adapt when subjected to prolonged space missions.

They looked at how our cardiovascular system, immune system, neurosensory systems, musculoskeletal health, reproductive health and behavioural health may adapt for longer periods spent in space.

One paper on human reproductive health said that from what we know at the moment there is insufficient evidence to show that we can sustain the human race in space.

Such an issue  could be damning to humanity’s long-term efforts in space: it would be crucial for a project such as the Mars One mission to be a success, and, in fact, for any form of colonisation.

“Despite the consideration that in the distant future, human reproduction is likely to occur in space, the current literature base is insufficient, limiting speculation about the possibility that intricate and complex phases of reproduction in mammals—including mating, fertilization, implantation, placentation, embryogenesis, organogenesis, prenatal and postnatal development, birth, lactation and suckling—can occur in space,” the paper on reproductive health said.


It highlighted that the effect of microgravity, weightlessness and very low g-force levels, combined with extra radiation, could cause sperm creation issues.

While there has been no post-spaceflight research involving humans, a study on rats that had been exposed to just six weeks of simulated microgravity found they suffered from “severe testicular and epididymal degeneration”.

The reproductive paper concluded that there is a lack of knowledge about what the reproductive effects spaceflight has on men and women.

The paper said: “Understanding of reproductive changes in men and women (pre, during and post-flight) that extend into the health and rearing of their offspring is limited. There is a critical lack of information about the effects of spaceflight on gonadal function and bone loss, as well as about effects of cosmic radiation on women’s health.”


The executive summary of all the papers recommended that there should be a focus on the responses of individual astronauts to spaceflight and their return to Earth.

For more to be found out about how space changes our bodies, and the different effects it has has on men and women, more data is needed.

The paper said more women need to be included in space missions as of all US astronauts just 15% of these have been female.

Although one positive note from the journal said that following missions to space, 13 female astronauts have given birth to 18 children,, with no increased complications.

Overall, the work said: “Informed decision-making regarding risks, countermeasures and medical treatments for long-duration exploration missions requires a more thorough understanding of sex and gender differences in adaptation. Many questions remain unanswered.”

Images courtesy of NASA