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Photos: Airships on the fly

A sky telescope, extrawide-screen floating monitors and wireless tower replacements are some of the new ideas for airships.
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1 of 16 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

Telescope

Look up! Blimps, zeppelins and airships of all sizes are making their way through the skies. The strange-looking, floating craft are no longer an oddity as giant billboards--but they can also drift above the worst weather on Earth for communications, science and military applications.

A new proposal from Robert A. Fesen of Dartmouth College adds to the call for a high-altitude airship to serve as the platform for a telescope. Two airships pieced together like a catamaran could hold a telescope adrift about 13 miles over the Earth, above the weather and heavy atmosphere. Or a V-shaped airship, like the 175-foot Ascender (left) from JP Aerospace could hold a telescope platform. High winds, however, tore the ship apart during its test flight.

If successful, it could be a very low-cost alternative or supplement to an orbiting telescope like the Hubble, which is suffering from a broken camera and will no longer be repaired by astronauts. Hubble, launched in 1990, has already exceeded its original life expectancy of 15 years.

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Stratellite

Airships are divided into two main categories: rigid airships with rigid frames, i.e. zeppelins, and nonrigid or semirigid airships that maintain their shape by internal pressure. Blimps were named after the sound made after poking a finger into the shell.

Another airship concept is the "stratellite," which is essentially a cell tower that would float about 65,000 feet, or about 12 miles, above the Earth. The extra height would enable just 12 stratellites to completely cover the United States, according to its developer, GlobeTel Communications.

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21st Century Airships

The company 21st Century Airships claims that its high-altitude airship can stay aloft for a month and will soon be able to stay on flights that could last as long as a year. The company builds its airships in a spherical shape, saying they have less surface area and will leak less, turn quicker and move faster than tradition cigar-shaped models.

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Wide screen

Football analyst John Madden may have a fear of flying, but you can see his face broadcast over a 70-by-30-foot LED screen on the side of a blimp. The Lightship Group's A-170 lightship recently received Federal Aviation Administration clearance to fly with the wide screen. Stronger lift power and lighter electronics have made the bigger screens possible.

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High Altitude Airship

Lockheed Martin is developing a high-altitude airship (HAA) for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. It could be used as a surveillance platform, telecommunications relay, weather observer or telescope platform. The 400-foot long, 140-foot diameter airship is expected to float for about a month above the jet stream, at an altitude of 60,000 feet. The HAA could observe an area of 600 square miles and millions of cubic miles of airspace. The prototype and test delivery is scheduled for 2009.

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Dynalifter

Another concept is the hybrid airship. These ships get a large portion of their lift from their wings and hull, so they can't be called airships. But they do solve typical airship problems involving takeoff, landing and ground operations.

The Ohio Airship's Dynalifter was subcontracted to defense contractors Conceptual Research Corporation, Analytical Methods and Composite Engineering. The companies have developed models from a 120-foot-long prototype (left) to a 990-foot freighter.

One of Howard Hughes' last projects was to work on the development of the cargo-carrying vessel called the Megalifter hybrid. These hybrid freighters could be a boon to the environment by taking thousands of trucks off the highway.

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Aeroscraft

Aeros has planned a 850-foot-long luxury-liner airship, called Aeroscraft. A Rolls Royce engine will help it reach a speed of 152 knots, and the airship is expected to comfortably seat up to 200 passengers. Pilots will be able to shut off the engines to gracefully float past interesting sights.

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Skysat

The company Space Data operates a network of high-altitude, balloon-borne transceivers (below right) known as SkySite Platforms. The balloons, which serve as wireless towers, are launched every 8 to 12 hours to keep the network running. Each SkySite Platform rises to an altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet, from which it can cover an area 420 miles in diameter.

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Aerover Blimp

The Aerobe blimp may never make it beyond the drawing board, but scientists are seriously considering using it to fly over uncharted planets and over moons that contain atmospheres--such as Mars, or Saturn's Titan. The model would be about 33 feet long and filled with helium. The blimp would have a propeller, which would let it move at about six miles per hour, and it would also have wheels that would let it land if necessary.

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Aerostat

Lockheed Martin developed this high-altitude 56,000-cubic-foot tethered aerostat surveillance system for deployment in Iraq. The aerostats, equipped with various sensors, will provide a persistent surveillance capability for the defense of ground forces and high-value assets in Baghdad.

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Combat SkySat

The military is currently testing the use of small, inexpensive balloons to increase communications range. In combat areas, radios now have a range of 10 miles, but balloons could extend that to about 400 miles.

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Searching for diamonds

Gem-mining company De Beers is leasing a Zeppelin-NT airship to hunt for potential diamond deposits in Botswana and South Africa from hundreds of feet up in the air. The rigid dirigible carries high-tech sensors from Bell Geospace that conduct geological scans to pinpoint the lower-density rock formations where diamonds may be found. Unlike airplanes, the Zeppelin-NT has a low level of noise and can cruise at low speeds, suitable for the advanced gravity geometry technology.

Here we see the De Beers Zeppelin-NT in flight near Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. The airship typically takes off at sunset and flies for six or seven hours a night, when there is less turbulence. According to a survey team member, it can cover as many as 300 kilometers (about 186 miles) in a day, compared with the 5 kilometers (just more than 3 miles) a ground crew can log.

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NASA balloons

NASA has several ongoing balloon projects, including the Ultra-Long Duration Balloon project to research the use of balloons above the Troposphere. The Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass (CREAM) experiment sent a 450-foot balloon over the Antarctic for almost 42 days--reaching an altitude of 125,000 feet (left). CREAM is designed to explore cosmic rays from outside the solar system.

On the right is a trial balloon launched in June 2006 for NASA by the Swedish Space Corporation to test the Ultra-Long Duration Balloon vehicle. The balloon reached a height of about 135,000 feet above the Earth's surface.

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"Zeppy"

The 2005 Paris Air Show had no shortage of jet planes, but it also featured some more-delicate aircraft. The "Zeppy," for instance, is a helium airship that Frenchman Stephane Rousson (seated) plans to fly across the English Channel.

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Inside a giant airship

Here's what the inside of a giant airship looks like.

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Goodyear blimps

Everyone knows the Goodyear blimps. A generation of Americans grew up with their aerial camera shots of sporting events and parades.

The first Goodyear blimp, called the Mayflower (left), was launched in 1929. The Stars and Stripes (below) was used to solicit emergency food and donations in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.

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