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.