NASA has submitted a request for information in order to gauge the interest of industry, academia, innovators and enthusiasts regarding a potential airship design challenge. The agency hopes that the “20-20-20 Airship Challenge” would incentivize the development of innovative airships, such as blimps and zeppelins with the ability to maintain position high in Earth's stratosphere, providing a platform not only for astronomy and Earth sciences, but also for commercial uses.
Whilst some inflatables (such as weather balloons) already operating in the stratosphere have their uses, there also have many drawbacks. For example, whilst a weather balloon is capable enough at gathering meteorological data, it's completely at the mercy of the winds, and is therefore incapable of gathering targeted data. An airship has no such weakness – they are designed to be lighter than air and capable of holding their position under their own steam, providing stability and maneuverability that's valuable for numerous industries.
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It is because of these strengths that companies and agencies such as Lockheed Martin, Thales Alenia Space and NASA hope to harness the flexibility of the airship for a number of roles. For example, telescopes could be mounted on either end, transforming it into an adjustable stellar imaging platform. The airship could also be utilized to monitor climate change in a static region, or even provide telecommunication and wireless services to remote communities.
"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," states JPL astrophysicist Jason Rhodes.
Whilst the potential applications of the project are manifold, NASA has stated that at this point there are no plans to accept proposals for a manned airship, although the agency has not ruled it out for future development.
To help incentivize the project, NASA is planning to put up a US$2-3 million prize purse to be split between the two competition tiers. Tier 1 of the competition would require entrants' airships to achieve a stable altitude of 20 km (12 miles) with a 20 kg (44 lb) payload. The airship must then hold position within 5 km (3 miles) diameter of the station area and safely return the payload to the surface intact. Tier two of the competition follows the same pattern as the first, but requires airships to haul a 200 kg (440 lb) payload to be carried to the target altitude where it must remain for a period of 200 hours.
If the competition is deemed viable, the agency hopes to initiate the 20-20-20 Airship Challenge some time in 2015, the first and second tier taking place over the following 3- 4 years.