NASA's high-altitude airship concept

NASA’s high-altitude, long-duration, airship concept that could be used as a research scientific platform or for commercial purposes.

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

Airships aren’t just powered balloon-like vehicles that hover above sporting events. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are floating the idea that airships have potential for important scientific and commercial uses.

NASA is considering issuing a challenge for developing stratospheric airships that can break records in terms of duration of flight at high altitudes. The agency has issued a request for information for this contemplated “20-20-20 Airship Challenge.” Submissions will be accepted until December 1.

“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, California, who is leading the effort on the possible challenge.

A blimp is one example of an airship; a zeppelin, which has a rigid body, is another. By definition, an airship must be powered, navigable, and lighter than air.

The idea behind the 20-20-20 Airship Challenge would be to achieve unprecedented airship milestones. The first “tier” of competition would be to get an airship with a 44-pound (20 kilogram) payload to stay at an altitude of 65,000 feet (20 kilometers) for 20 hours. More ambitious ship-builders can aim for the second tier, with the same height but carrying a 440-pound (200-kilogram) payload for 200 hours.

“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,” Rhodes said.

Read more at jpl.nasa