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What is an Orbital Airship?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 17, 2024
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The orbital airship, or "space blimp," is a proposed means of moving cargo from the ground to low earth orbit without the use of conventional rocketry. The design of an orbital airship consists of three stages, designed to move payloads from earth to space in about a week. Although there are several organizations working toward creating such a ship, the concept is best known part of a program called Airship to Orbit (ATO), envisioned by JP Aerospace, a California-based volunteer organization that sees itself as a private competitor to NASA. Despite JP Aerospace's enthusiasm about their proposed design, a number of experts doing independent analyses have argued that certain details are physically unworkable.

The first stage of ATO is a conventional airship filled with helium. V-shaped for the purpose of being aerodynamic, it is labeled the Ascender. The orbital airship ascends to about 25 miles (40 km), then docks with stage two, a permanent, crewed platform called Dark Sky Station (DSS).

Like the Ascender, the Dark Sky Station is an inflated structure without a rigid shell. The first stage is prevented from ascending beyond 25 miles (40 km) because any orbital airship capable of surviving atmospheric winds would unfortunately be too heavy to make the trip into space. Several prototypes of both the Ascender and the Dark Sky Station have already been created.

The third stage of ATO is the Orbital Ascender, a 6,000 foot (1.8 km) long air/spaceship designed to make the trip from the DSS to 93 miles (150 km), or low Earth orbit. Although helium is still lighter than air at 25 miles (40 km), this effect diminishes and eventually halts, making the craft heavier than its surroundings. At 93 miles (150 km) the density of air is only three billionths of what it is at sea level.

JP Aerospace has proposed covering this massive Ascender in solar panels and using ion engines to accelerate the craft to approximately 5 miles per second (8,000 meters per second), the required speed for any object to reach orbit. It has been claimed that this process would take around five days.

Unfortunately, some simple calculations show that ion engines coupled with solar panels would not provide sufficient thrust to propel the massive envelope of gas to the speed required for atmospheric exit. Possibly by combusting on-board hydrogen, creating a blimp design that folds during ascent to become more aerodynamic, or by beaming power in microwave form from the Dark Sky Station to the Orbital Ascender, this scheme could become practical. Alternatively, the Dark Sky Station might simply be used as a platform for the launch of chemical rockets.

Many details still need to be worked out to make the orbital airship viable. No lighter-than-air craft has yet flown at hypersonic speeds, leading many experts to be skeptical at proposals of an orbital airship.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon271617 — On May 27, 2012

Why not have the blimp fly as high as it can and then fall to the surface and then activate Scram jets or Ram jets? Then it could go hypersonic.

I don't know but maybe the thrust would be enough to propel it in to orbit without any thrust but just momentum and gravity mechanics. What if the blimp is vertical and the scram jets are thrusting downward would the blimp's upward buoyancy and the thrust make it go fast enough?

By anon68261 — On Mar 01, 2010

Why not use the ascender to lift vehicles that can currently travel in space like the shuttle? Instead of burning the hydrogen for each flight, the shuttle could be lifted over and over again with the same hydrogen.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology,...
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