NASA pondering $1.5 million stratospheric airship competition

NASA wants high-flying airships for astronomy, Earth Science applications

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A Raytheon Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System aerostat is pictured at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. NASA wants airships, perhaps like this to fly into the stratosphere.

Credit: Reuters

NASA this week said it was contemplating a public competition to build airships capable of reaching the stratosphere where it could remain for a period of time gathering astronomy data or watching environmental changes on the ground.

 NASA this week issued a Request For Information to gather industry interest in and the feasibility of such a competition that the agency says would have a prize purse ranging from $1 to $1.5 million dollars.

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Some of the preliminary goals of the Airship Centennial Challenge would be:

  • Reach a minimum altitude of 20 km (about 66,000ft).
  • Maintain the altitude for 20 hours (200 hours for Tier 2 competition). Remain within a 5 km diameter station area (and navigate between two designated points for Tier 2).
  • Successfully return the 20 kg payload (200 kg for Tier 2 competition) and payload data.
  • Show Airship scalability for longer duration flights with larger payloads through a scalability review.
  • The competition could take place over the next 3 to 4 years.
  • A requirement is being considered that competitors must independently gain FAA approval for their airships and provide a location for demonstration.

“There are few opportunities for space missions in astronomy and Earth science. Airships (powered, maneuverable, lighter-than-air vehicles that can navigate a designated course) could offer significant gains in observational persistence over local and regional areas, sky and ground coverage, data downlink capability, payload flexibility, and over existing suborbital options at competitive prices. We seek to spur a demonstration of the capability for sustained airship flights as astronomy and Earth Science platforms in a way that is complementary with broad industry interests,” NASA stated.

 NASA Centennial Challenges typically spur public and private partnerships to come up with a unique solution to a very tough problem, usually with prize money attached for the winner.  Centennial Challenges in the past have typically required several annual competitions to occur before the total prize purses, which can be in the millions-of-dollars range, can be claimed.  

Earlier this year NASA said it was developing two Centennial Challenge competitions that would let the public design, build and deliver small satellites known as Cubesats capable of operations and experiments near the moon and beyond.

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