NASA seeks interest for high-tech airships

NASA is thinking about putting forward a Centennial Challenge for the development of high-altitude and long-duration stratospheric airships for scientific innovation. The citizen science challenge would be called ‘The 20-20-20 Airship Challenge‘ and winning projects could receive monetary prizes of up to 2-3 million dollars.

Artist's concept of a high-altitude airship (credit: Mike Hughes (Eagre Interactive)/Keck Institute for Space Studies)

Artist’s concept of a high-altitude airship (credit: Mike Hughes (Eagre Interactive)/Keck Institute for Space Studies)

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena California, researchers have been considering the idea that airships could be much more than just powered balloon-like vehicles hovering above sporting events. Stratospheric airships, in fact, have potential for both scientific and commercial uses. In astronomy for instance, they have been proposed for carrying telescopes into the stratosphere to observe stars and celestial bodies and, even more ambitiously, to ply unmanned the skies of Venus (see Venus Atmospheric Manoeuvrable Platform). They could also be extremely valuable for climate studies where they could be employed to investigate weather patterns or even monitoring the global effects of climate change more effectively than traditional weather balloons. Beyond the scientific pursuits, stratospheric airships are also attractive to industry. Telecommunication companies could use them to deliver wireless access to remote areas, while the military could employ them in surveillance and missile defence operations.

The idea behind the 20-20-20 Airship Challenge is to achieve a series of milestones in airship development. Specifically: flying a powered airship that can remain stationary at 20 km altitude for over 20 hours with a 20 kg payload. These are the requirements for the first ‘tier’ of competition; more ambitious airship-developers can aim for the second tier which requires the same altitude but for 200 hours and 200 kg payload. The total airship prize purse may range from 2 to 3 million dollars and will be split into multiple prize awards for successful demonstrations of the two tiers.

The challenge proposed by NASA stems from the fact that current powered airships – e.g. blimps and zeppelins – cannot fly at the 20-km altitude for more than 8 hours. Weather balloons do fly at this height, but are subject to winds and are therefore less reliable. Unlike balloons, airships can stay in one spot, which allows them to have better downlink capabilities via line-of-sight communication.

The 20-20-20 Airship Challenge would become part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program that offers prizes to citizen-designed tech that solves research problems that are of interest to NASA. Before officially launching it, NASA will first gauge public interest in the airship competition and possible payload partners.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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