It would be convenient to have inexpensive long duration platforms placed out of most of the Earth's atmosphere for doing research - very high altitude airships. NASA is putting together a competition.
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.
This 20-20-20 Airship Challenge is currently contemplated as a two-tiered challenge that could provide opportunities to evaluate a wide range of innovative methods to launch an airship into the stratosphere, maintain altitude, and station-keep for a defined period of time. This challenge would seek to engage the aerospace industry, educational institutions, and amateurs to provide solutions. The Challenge is considering a total prize purse ranging from $1 to $1.5 million dollars, which would be split into multiple prize awards for successful demonstrations of a stratospheric airship that could accomplish the following tasks:
Reach a minimum altitude of 20 km. 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.