You’ve probably never thought of taking an airship into orbit

There were all kinds of wild ideas for getting spacecraft into orbit. Everything from huge cannon fire to spinning vessels at high speed has been designed, researched, or in some cases even tested to some extent. And yet the good old flaming rockets continue to dominate because they actually get the job done.

Missiles, fuel and all their supporting infrastructure remain expensive, so the search for an alternative continues. One bold idea involves using airships to launch cargo into orbit. What if you could simply soar into space?

Lighter than air

NASA regularly launches lighter-than-air balloons to high altitudes, but they are not orbital craft. Credit: NASA, public domain

The concept sounds convincing from the start. By using hydrogen or helium as a carrier gas, airships and balloons manage to reach high altitudes while burning zero fuel. What if you could float higher and higher until you reach orbital space?

This is a huge problem when it comes to achieving orbit. One of the biggest problems of our current space effort is the so-called tyranie rocket equation. TThe more cargo you want to take into space, the more fuel you need. But then that fuel adds more weight, which needs even more fuel to carry its weight into orbit. Not to mention the larger structure and support material that holds it all.

Carrying even a few extra kilograms of mass into space can require a huge amount of additional fuel. This is why we currently use staged rockets to reach orbit. By reducing a large amount of structural weight at the end of each rocket stage, it is possible to move the remaining rocket further with less fuel.

If you could get into orbit using zero fuel it would be a total game changer. It wouldn’t just be cheaper to launch satellites or other costs. It would also make missions to the Moon or Mars much easier. These rockets would no longer have to carry the huge amount of fuel needed to escape the Earth’s surface and reach orbit. Instead, they could only carry the smaller amount of fuel needed to travel from Earth orbit to their final destination.

The rumored “Chinese spy balloon” incident of 2023 saw a balloon carrying a payload that looked very much like a satellite. It was even solar powered. However, such a craft would never reach orbit because it had no viable propulsion system to generate the huge delta-V needed. Credit: USAF, public domain

Of course, it’s not that simple. Achieving orbit isn’t just about getting high above Earth. If you go straight up above the surface of the Earth and then stop, you will fall back down. If you want to go around, you really have to go sideways, really fast.

So the launch system of an airship into orbit would have to do two things. It would have to pull the payload up high and then get it up to the speed needed for its desired orbit. It’s hard there. The minimum speed to reach a stable orbit around the Earth is 7.8 kilometers per second (28,000 km/h or 17,500 mph). So, even though you floated very, very high, you still need a huge rocket or some kind of very efficient ion funnel to get your payload up to that speed. And you still need fuel to create that massive delta-V (velocity change).

Because of this, airships are not as ideal a way to reach orbit as you might think. They are good for swimming and you can even go very, very high. But if you want to orbit the Earth over and over and over, you’d better take a bucket of fuel with you.

Someone is working on it

JP Aerospace founder John Powell regularly posts updates on the Orbital Airship concept on YouTube. Credit: John Powell, YouTube

Still, the concept is actively being worked on, but not by the usual suspects. Don’t look at NASA, JAXA, SpaceX, ESA or even Roskosmos. Instead, it’s the work of a volunteer DIY space program known as JP Aerospace.

The organization has big dreams of launching airships into space. But his concept isn’t as simple as just getting into a big balloon and soaring into orbit. Instead, it counts on a three-tier system.

The first phase would involve an airship designed to travel from ground level up to 140,000 feet. The company proposes a V-shaped design with an airfoil profile that creates additional lift as it moves through the atmosphere. Propulsion would be through propellers that are specially designed to operate in a near vacuum at these altitudes.

Once at this height, the first stage ship docks with a permanently floating structure called the Dark Sky Station. It would serve as a docking station where cargo could be transferred from the first stage craft to the Orbital Ascender, a craft designed to launch payloads into orbit.

The Ascender H1 Variant is the company’s latest concept for an airship to carry cargo from 140,000 feet into orbit. Credit: John Powell, YouTube screenshot

The Orbital Ascender itself sounds like a fantastic thing on paper. The team’s current concept is for a V-shaped craft with a fabric outer skin that contains many individual plastic cells filled with lift gas. That in itself isn’t that wild, but the suggested size is. It is to measure 1,828 meters on each side of the V — well over a mile long — with an internal volume of over 11 million cubic meters. Thin-film solar panels on the surface of the vessel are to generate 90 MW of power, while a plasma generator on the leading edge is to help reduce drag. The latter is critical because the craft will need to reach hypersonic speeds in the ultra-thin atmosphere to get its payload up to orbital speeds. To get the ship up to orbital speed, the team conducted test firings on their own plasma thruster designs.

Cargo will be transported in two cargo spaces, each measuring 30 square meters and 20 meters deep. Credit: John Powell, YouTube screenshot

The team at JP Aerospace is passionate, but currently lacks the resources to fully realize their plans. Right now, the team has some sort of low-altitude experimental research vessel that’s several hundred feet long. Currently, the Dark Sky and Orbital Ascender stations remain distant dreams.

Realistically, the team has yet to find a shortcut to orbit. Building a working version of the Orbital Ascender would require a huge amount of material to be brought up to the high altitude where it would have to be constructed. Such a vessel would be blown to pieces by a mere breeze in the lower atmosphere. A lighter-than-air craft that could operate at such high altitudes and speeds may not even be practical with modern materials, even though the atmosphere is vanishing above 140,000 feet. There are huge questions about what materials the team would use and whether the theoretical concepts for reducing plasma drag could be made to work on a monumentally huge craft.

The team built a number of test vessels for operation at lower altitudes. Credit: John Powell, Youtube Screenshot

Even if it is a basic execution of the craft could work, there are questions about the practicalities of crewing and maintaining a permanent airship floating station at high altitude. Let alone how the payload would be transferred from one giant balloon craft to another. These problems could be solved with billions of dollars. Maybe. JP Aerospace handles a budget that is several orders of magnitude higher.

One might imagine that it would be worth trying a simpler idea first. Taking conventional rockets up to 100,000 feet using balloons would be easier and still reduce fuel requirements to some extent. But ultimately, the key challenge in orbit remains. You still have to find a way to get your payload up to at least 5 miles per second, no matter how high you can get it into the air. That would still require a huge rocket and an appropriately huge balloon to lift it!

For now, orbit remains devastatingly hard to reach, whether you want to go by rocket, airship, or nuclear-powered paddle steamer. Don’t expect to be soaring to the moon in an airship anytime soon, even if it sounds like a good idea.