Space

NASA requests comment on airship challenge

NASA requests comment on airsh...
Artist's concept of NASA airship (Image: M. Hughes/Eagre Interactive/Keck Institute for Space Studies)
Artist's concept of NASA airship (Image: M. Hughes/Eagre Interactive/Keck Institute for Space Studies)
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Artist's concept of NASA airship (Image: M. Hughes/Eagre Interactive/Keck Institute for Space Studies)
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Artist's concept of NASA airship (Image: M. Hughes/Eagre Interactive/Keck Institute for Space Studies)

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.

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.

Source: NASA

6 comments
Stephen N Russell
Airship apps: Cargo logging Rescue mapping/surveys Tourisim IE overfly Hawaii, other locales wilderness fire fighting MedEvac? VIP Exec use: host 100 execs to see project X vs using exec jets.
Gary Fisher
The huge potential of LTA aircraft has been ignored for too long. The environmental and communications potentials alone would justify the development of new designs, and as @Stephen Russell points out, there are a multitude of other potential applications.
Billy Sharpstick
Bring back hydrogen. It is lighter than helium and renewable. Helium is a non renewable resource that we are wasting on toy balloons. Let's get over that silly Hindenburg incident and use the best material for the job.
Slowburn
@ Billy Sharpstick Helium can be harvested from the atmosphere at sustainable prices it is just that it is more expensive than the current sources.
Tholzel
No mention of the major early uses--espionage, and mapping.
Martin Winlow
I have always seen a modern Zeppelin as a natural addition to ocean liners/jet aircraft. All the bells and whistles - restaurants, cabins, observation decks etc etc - but just 5 times as fast. Surely the use of modern materials could give us a 100mph, lighter than air zep... powered by thin-film solar? London to New York in a day and a half... More interestingly (from the respective of potential views) London to anywhere in Europe in less than a day... I'm thinking machines the best part of a kilometre long, here! Using helium, it could be nigh-on 'un-sinkable'.