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How Airships Are Set to Revolutionize Science

Airships can patrol the upper atmosphere, monitoring the ground or peering at the stars for a fraction of a cost of satellites, according to a new report. All that’s needed is a prize to kick-start innovation.

The Naval Air Engineering Station in Lakehurst New Jersey must be one of the most famous airfields in the world. If you’ve ever watched the extraordinary footage of the German passenger airship Hindenburg catching fire as it attempted to moor, you’ll have seen Lakehurst. That’s where the disaster took place.

Despite its notorious past, Lakehurst is still a center of airship engineering and technology. In 2012, it was home to the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, an airship designed and built for the U.S. military to use for surveillance purposes over Afghanistan.

The vehicle is colossal—91 meters long, 34 meters wide, and 26 meters high, about the size of a 30 story office block lying on its side. And it is designed to fly uncrewed at about 10 kilometers for up to three weeks at a time. (Last year, the program was canceled and the airship sold back to the British contractor that built it, which now intends to fly it commercially.)

This ambitious program and a few others like it mostly funded by the U.S. military, have attracted some jealous glances from scientists. The ability to fly at 20 kilometers or more for extended periods of time could be hugely useful.

Fitted with cameras that scan the ground, sensors that monitor the atmosphere or telescopes that point to the stars, these observatories could revolutionize the kind of data researchers are able to gather about the universe.  

Today, Sarah Miller and few pals have prepared a report for the Keck Institute of Space Studies in Pasadena suggesting that scientists have unnecessarily ignored the advantages of airships and that the time is right for a new era of science based on this capability.

The problem, of course, is that airships capable of these missions have not yet been built. Most of the well-funded development has come from the military for long duration surveillance missions. But with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the downsizing of the U.S. military machine, this funding has dried up.

But Miller and co have a suggestion. They say that innovation in this area could be stimulated by setting up a prize for the development of a next-generation airship, just as the X-Prize stimulated interest in reusable rocket flights. The goal, they say, should be to build a maneuverable, stationed-keeping airship that can stay aloft at an altitude of more than 20 km from least 20 hours while carrying a science payload of a least 20 kg.

That’s a significant challenge. One problem will be carrying or generating the power required to propel the airship. This increases with the cube of its airspeed and so will be the biggest drain on the vehicle’s resources.

Another challenge is to handle the thermal loads at this altitude, where temperatures can vary by as much as 50 °C and where there is little air to carry heat away.

But none of these problems look like showstoppers. Given the right kind of incentives, it should be possible to put one of these things in the air in the very near future, perhaps based on the technology developed for vehicles like the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle.

All that’s needed is a sponsor willing to cough up a few million dollars for a prize. Anybody with a few bucks to spare?

Ref: : AIRSHIPS : A New Horizon for Science

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