Saturday, December 6, 2014


NASA's Proposed New Airship Competition Good for Science and Maritime Operations. Other Developments in Maritime Lighter Than Air Technology

Concept Drawing Courtesy United States Missile Defense Agency
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  Lighter than air ships are capable of operating in the highest reaches of the atmosphere where there is still enough gas density for propulsion systems and control systems to work. Since being lighter than air eliminates lift as a requirement the upper reaches of lighter than air flight are pretty close to the edge of space. We're talking the realm of the visible night sky even in day light above the typical heights at which fighter aircraft work. Not being dependent on forward motion to generate lift the lighter than air craft has the ability to hoover over one position on the earth, move slowly in coordination with events, and stay on station for highly protracted Periods. Non rigid lighter than air ships are generally rounded in shape and consist very largely of soft material and are thus naturally stealthy. Today that stealth can be technologically enhanced if stealth is desired. Geo Synchronized satellites are able to keep a single area of the earth under continuous surveillance but would be prohibitively expensive to man or to be designed for easy and rapid relocation.

 The lighter than airship able to operate on "the edge of space" makes an excellent atmospheric, or stellar observatory. This is NASA's interest in the modernization of the lighter than air ship. There can be no denial that the same attributes of such air ships as make them excellent science observatories also make them attractive for a variety of naval/military applications. The U.S. Department of Defense is interested in these aerial vehicles as well.
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 NASA is preparing to run a design contest for a scientific airship.  We found details at a web site called AMERICA SPACE: (Home page:  )
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     " The space agency is considering issuing a challenge to various interested communities to design a new airship which could fly at high altitudes and also stay aloft for record periods of time. A request for information has been issued by NASA for the proposed “20-20-20 Airship Challenge.” The total prize purse awarded would be from $1 to $1.5 million dollars, with the competition taking place over the next 3 to 4 years.
“We are seeking to take astronomy and Earth science to new heights by enabling a long-duration, suborbital platform for these kinds of research,” said Jason Rhodes, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Rhodes is heading the effort for this challenge."
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Those interested in additional details or in contest entry should visit the AMERICA SPACE via any of the links in this post.
 Obviously, the naval and military communities are highly interested in the further development of lighter than air (LTA) vehicles. Caltech has published a study on the developmental progress, and potential utility of such LTA craft. Below is a quote from their study. 
 "Over the last two decades, there has been wide interest in developing a high altitude, stratospheric lighter-than-air (LTA) airship that could maneuver and remain in a desired geographic position (i.e., "station-keeping") for weeks, months or even years.
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Such a stratospheric airship would offer the military surveillance capabilities over large areas. This platform would also provide telecommunication companies a means of providing commercial communication and data services to consumers in remote areas. While stratospheric airships remain a promise rather than a reality today, seeing through the final stages of development of such vehicles operating in the relatively light winds present in the lower stratosphere at altitudes around 65 kft (20 km), would enable unique data collection opportunities for Earth and atmospheric scientists. They would be a gamechanger for space scientists since their costs as a platform would be substantially lower than satellite missions."  To Read the entire study click here: CALTECH LTA STUDY.
 We noted with interest that Caltech felt that LTS stratospheric operations could eventually be achieved, but that upper atmosphere operations of heights up to 20 km above the earth are easily achievable now and offer tremendous opportunities to scientific and naval/military endeavor. Most "high altitude" military and commercial jets operate between 14 km and 22 km. The X-15 has flown to over 67 KM but most heavier than air aircraft that operate between 20 km and 67 km are specialized military or experimental craft. The 20 km altitude is not a terribly crowded air corridor at the moment. There are no rush programs or lavish funding in LTA research and development at the moment but some new LTA vehicles are being fabricated. No real production lines have evolved as yet. However interest is growing and R& D money is increasing. We'll keep an eye on this development especially for our naval aviation readers and report back every now and then

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