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.

lockheed-airship

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.

aeros-airship

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.


Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.