Monday, October 13, 2003

Giants in the Stratosphere

At the end of September, 2003, Lockheed Martin won a Department of Defense competition to build a 500-foot long airship that would hover quasi geosynchronously (as if it were hovering over a fixed spot) at the 70,000 foot altitude. The altitude was chosen, according to Lockheed Martin because the quiet wind conditions above the Jet Stream minimized the energy required to keep it in position. That propulsion would be provided by an energy generating solar film which would power the motors required to keep it in position.

The stratospheric airships are part of a constellation of 11 which will be deployed by NORAD to "provide overlapping radar coverage of all maritime and southern border approaches to the continental U.S." They will be as long as a destroyer, 22 stories in height and will remain on station without descending, for six months at a time. Each airship will loft an electronics package of 4,000 pounds in weight.

The concept and general physics of a high altitude airship have been touted for some time. Both the European Space Agency and the Japanese have long understood the potential of these platforms for communications relay, remote sensing and surveillance, but the Lockheed Martin ship is the first serious attempt at actual flight and series production. The commercial potential of these platforms is so great that the United States government hopes to recover a part of its investment by selling communications bandwidth under 10 U.S.C. 2371 and Section 845 of Public Law 103-160.

According to a recent article by ABC News, high-flying blimps would be an ideal platform to deliver wireless internet services blanketing whole continents.

These high-tech blimps could carry up to 4,000 pounds of telecommunications gear and float it up to 13 miles into the stratosphere. At that height, far above any conventional commercial air traffic or turbulent weather patterns, the Stratellite would act as a wireless communications hub to provide wireless voice and data services for an area of up to 300,000 square miles.

"It's perfect for outlying areas that can't get broadband telephone or cable [TV] access," says Sanswire CEO Michael K. Molen. "[Subscribers] just put up a small antenna and they're in business."

It's early days yet, but with the advent of manned commercial suborbital flight now imminent, the development of outer space is continuing apace. The twenty first century, if it can avoid reverting to the eighth under the dominion of radical Islam, will mark the start of mankind's first tentative essays into the solar system.