Airships to Orbit?
9:15 PM on Oct 27, 2011
JP Aerospace, a volunteer-based organization dedicated to low-cost space access, is claiming an airship altitude record after its twin-balloon Tandem reached 95,085ft after launch on Oct. 22 from Nevada's Black Rock desert (the record for an unmanned balloon is 173,900ft).
Photos: JP Aerospace
The unmanned Tandem is designed to carry small suborbital payloads to high altitudes. The twin balloons are separated by a 30ft-long carbon-fiber truss arrying the payloads and two electric motors, each driving a 6ft-diameter propeller designed to operate at high altitude. The airship weighed 80lb, 20lb of which was the balloons, says JP Aerospace.
Released from balloon launch bags, which allow flight in winds up to 45kt, the airship rose through "extreme turbulence" at 40,000-60,000ft before reaching its maximum altitude, where the motors were turned on and the airship remoerly piloted through a series of maneuvers. The mission ended when one of the balloons burst. The other was released and the Tandem parachuted to a soft landing.
JP Aerospace describes the Tandem as a "workhorse vehicle" for its Airship to Orbit program, under which it hopes to build manned hybrid airships that carry passengers and cargo to 140,000ft to dock with a bouyant suborbital space station. Lauched from the permanently stationed and crewed station, a large airship would then use bouyancy to climb to 200,000ft, where electric propulsion would take over and lift it into orbit over several days.