A group of volunteers have an idea for joining the private space race – airships.
The DIY crew sent an unmanned powered airship soaring 95,085 feet above Nevada last month, an altitude they claim is the record for a (remotely) piloted airship. Some free-floating research balloons have gone higher.
The group operates JP Aerospace and the tandem balloon vehicle is part of their “Airship to Orbit” project. They hope to use high-altitude airships as a launch platform for rockets or hypersonic aircraft sent into space.
JP Aerospace president John Powell said in a statement that the group achieved flight with a dramatically smaller budget than the usual aerospace companies.
“The big aerospace firms have been trying to do this for decades, spending hundreds of millions of dollars,” Powell said. “We’ve spent about $30,000 and the past five years developing Tandem.”
Air-launching a space or hypersonic vehicle is not a new idea. The X-15 project used a Boeing B-52 bomber to carry the dart-like X-15 to more than 40,000 feet, where it would be dropped before rocketing to sub-orbital space and speeds of more than Mach 5. Scaled Composites used an airplane to launch SpaceShipOne and will again use the same type of airborne launch for SpaceShipTwo.
Using an airship as a launch platform also has been on the drawing boards awhile but never put to use. Lockheed Martin has been developing its High Altitude Airship, but the vehicle is designed for altitudes around 60,000 feet and is primarily a military observation platform.
The JP Aerospace vehicle is 30 feet long and uses a pair of balloons for buoyancy. Two electric motors mounted on a carbon-fiber truss turn six-foot-diameter propellers designed to work in the thin air found at such altitudes. The airship was maneuvered by a person on the ground.
JP Aerospace hopes its relatively simple and inexpensive system could be a cost-effective way to put payloads into orbit. And of course there is the plan to one day use larger airships as a launch platform for astronauts on their way to make some laps around the planet.
Image: JP Aerospace