Turns out there is an existing market for a long-term platform 20 kilometers up (like Neal Stephenson’s Tall Tower), according to The New York Times. And it may attract NASA money.
The idea is to make commercial a really really high-flying blimp. “Stratospheric airships could give us spacelike conditions from a spacelike platform, but without the spacelike costs,” said Sarah Miller, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Irvine, talking with the New York Times’ Joshua A. Krischaug in August 2014.
“Really, there are two very broad scientific applications of stratospheric airships,” said Jason Rhodes, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author of a study for the Keck Institute for Space Studies. The paper, published in February, found that conventional space satellites could cost up to 100 times as much as low-altitude, nonstratospheric airships. (There have been too few stratospheric airships to analyze their cost, according to The Times.)
“You can look up and do astronomy, or you can look down and do earth science,” Rhodes said. And oh yes, the military was very interested in funding this until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wore down.
It’s not trivial to make an aircraft that can maneuver itself, stay in one location, remain 20 kilometers up for very long periods, and then land itself and its payload gently, the Times article reports. Among other things, when the lifting gas gets hot in high-altitude sunlight, it wants to expand a whole lot – possibly rupturing the blimp. And when it gets cold, the blimp gets, um, flaccid. But these obstacles can and have been overcome for a period of up to eight hours. So it is possible.
And its creators are following a very Hieroglyph-like path to making it happen. They are appealing to NASA’s imagination.
“Dr. Rhodes proposed that NASA fund a Centennial Challenge to bring engineers back into the airship market,” according to The Times. “Centennial Challenges offer millions of dollars in prize money to civilian teams that build innovative technologies for NASA missions. Over the next few months, Dr. Rhodes will research and refine the rules of the challenge, and explore how to push the limits of airships’ payload and endurance. If NASA accepts the terms of the challenge, the race for a science-worthy stratospheric airship will begin shortly afterward.”
This just leaves a few questions: Would they like to tether their blimp to our tower? And…how big a King Kong would it take to complete the tableau?
Image credit: Keck Institute for Space Studies/Eagre Interactive