Building a High Altitude Airship

Hot air balloons were the first ever means for humans to travel through the air. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes were the first passengers to travel beneath a hot air balloon in Paris, France on November 21 in the year 1783. Their balloon (second one on the left in the top image) was a creation of the Montgolfier brothers, two paper manufacturers from Annonay, in Ardèche. The first designs for a zeppelin were developed between 1874 and 1893 by count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, but it wasn't until July 2nd 1900 that the first test flight took place. After a few unsuccessful attempts the fourth version of this design was constructed, which flew on the first day of July 1908 and reached an altitude of 795m (26.000ft), covering 386km (240 mile) from Zürich to Lake Constance. Since then balloon and zeppelins have been reaching higher and higher altitudes. The highest so far was performed on the 24th of October 2014 by Google senior vice president Alan Eustace. He was able to reach a height of 41.424 meters (135.906 ft) in a helium balloon before returning back to earth by parachute.

Although balloons have reached higher than any other method of air-travel except for rockets, there clearly is a limit to how high these conventional balloons can go. The heights that have been reached today are just about as high as the maximum limit for this technology. We most likely will be able to surpass these heights, but not greatly. Should we want to reach higher altitudes then we are certain to need to find new technologies to be able to mightily surpass the current height record.

What can give mankind a hint as to how this can be achieved is the observation of vortex rings, toroidal vortices, which in the infinity theory are named revolutes or scroll rings. If a person blows a smoke ring through his mouth, then the vortex ring is able to move forward in a straight line, as a very stable movement. When a smoke ring is aimed upwards then it is able to maintain its path just as easily as when it is aimed sideways or downwards.

Very large vortex rings move very slowly, but they are very stable and very effective in climbing towards higher altitudes. Very large vortex rings can be observed at some active volcanoes (see page about the bells), and at the mushroom clouds of many of the nuclear detonation tests performed within the past century. The video below shows some of these nuclear detonation examples of large vortex rings, which are basically the head of the mushroom cloud. Look at the video and observe how these large vortex rings move.

These examples are puzzle pieces that form an idea for a new air transportation method. The idea is to build a large airship, what can be described as a 'launch vessel', that more or less resembles a balloon, which is also very large and hollow and can carry only a small payload, yet at most of the times it is not filled with a gas different than the air around it, and it is not build in any traditional shape for a balloon or airship. The idea is to build a ship that mimics the shape and movement of a vortex ring.

The Revolving Torus

What we do is build a very large donut, a torus, from a frame made from a composite material that is lightweight yet sufficiently strong, with a radius perhaps about 100 meters (109 yards) or more. The frame will be closed with a nylon sheet which will form the inner layer of the donut. The donut will be hollow, at most of the times it is filled with the same air as the air outside. Then around this donut we will build a series of rails that rotate all around the circumference of the donut in circles all individually powered by an electric motor. These rails follow the same movement as the sum movement of a revolute vortex (thick vortex ring) or the sum movement of a scroll ring (thin vortex ring), but without spiraling inward. We might need to install at least 24 of these rails for it to be able to function properly. Then on these rails we attach a second outer layer of the vessel, made from a thin flexible material which can be transparent at places where we need to have an outside view from the inside of the vessel. This material does not need to be strong and can simply be a thicker version of a household plastic wrap. It probably doesn't need to be a material that induces a high amount of air-friction, in fact, it might be a requirement that the material is one that is smooth and lightweight, otherwise it might not function properly. The material that forms this outer layer will cover the entire surface of the donut, and it will rotate from the inner radius of the donut to the outer radius of the donut over the top side of the vessel, and then from the outer radius of the donut to the inner radius of the donut along the underside of the vessel.

All rails move at the same speed, and they work in unison to push the plastic outer layer all around the circumference of the donut, at a slow constant pace. The slow rotating motion of the outer layer will induce the air around the vessel to move in the motion of a vortex ring, or if the donut is thinner in proportion to its radius, a scroll ring. This will make the donut rise upward, steadily and conveniently stable. The rotating motion of the vessel acts like a wheel, one that in this particular shape is able to grab onto thin air.

Altitude


Image by NASA

It is it not likely that a revolute shaped launch-vessel can reach all the way into outer space, but it should reach an altitude much higher than was previously possible with any type of balloon. For the vessel to be able to travel higher, if it needs to, it should either be much bigger, or it would need to be closer to the shape of a scroll ring, thus a thinner (also cheaper) vessel. A thinner donut has the advantage that it is cheaper to build, plus that the outer moving layer is less subjected to stretching and folding, but it might be that this type of donut would also need to be build much larger for it to climb at very high altitutes. If the launch-vessel is build in the proportions of a scroll ring then the hot air will need to be able to lift the vessel higher than a vessel build in the proportions of a revolute before it will be able to proceed its climb with only the force of the rotating motion of the outer layer. If the launch-vessel will be able to reach outer space it will not burn when passing through the upper layer of the atmosphere because that will only happen when the speed an object is much faster. By reaching outer space the vessel should be able to place a small satellite into orbit.

 


 

The vessel might be able to take-off from water. If not, then the vessel's hollow space can be filled with hot air that can lift the donut the first kilometers into the air, just like a normal airship. For this a series of propane tanks can be installed within the hollow space of the vessel where it can be ignited for lift-off or landing. Helium or hydrogen gas would be too expensive for a volume this size. Another option besides water would be to take-off and land on a giant air-pillow build as a landing site. At the far lower base of the vessel the inner layer should always be open, that way the burning propane tanks will not deplete all the air within the vessel (I forgot to leave the base open in the animation). Another reason for the base to be open at all times is that the air within the vessel must have the same density as the air outside the vessel at high altitudes, otherwise the air within the vessel will at some point be heavier than the air outside the vessel, which will prohibit the vessel to lift itself further.

It might be possible to only use an outer rotating layer for the vessel and omit the inner static layer made of nylon while only keeping the frame made from a composite material. That way the outer frame can function as the layer that can hold the hot air needed for lift-off and landing. This however would be a less safer option since a static nylon layer will have less chance of rupturing. A rupture in the outer layer that only has a function to influence the airflow outside the vessel is not of a major concern. A rupture in the layer that is meant to hold in the hot air is a major concern. But... it might be that using only one outer rotating layer is the only option, because there is a possibility that the airflow inside the donut is also relevant to the functioning of a revolute.

An important factor to aware of before testing this new concept is that the vessel might not be able to ascend to higher altitudes when it is raining, and it might proof to be difficult to ascend through cloud layers even when it is not raining. The possibility is that this launch system can only operate during a clear sky weather condition.

Detachable Module

The cockpit of the vessel is very small relative to the size of the large vessel. It can be build as a small detachable module on the vessel which can serve as an escape pod in case of an emergency. For this it can be equipped with a set of parachutes that will safely land the pilots on ocean or on land. One option that goes one step further is to build the module not just as a detachable cockpit but as a detachable shuttle craft. Such a shuttle craft is not able to climb to higher altitudes within the atmosphere by itself, but is able to land as a glider on a runway or maneuver within outer space.

Such a shuttle craft already more or less exists in the form of the Dream Chaser Cargo System, which uses an American reusable automated cargo lifting-body spaceplane currently being developed by a space systems corporation in Sierra Nevada. This spaceplane has an on-orbit propulsion which is provided by twin hybrid rocket engines which allow it to maneuver within orbital altitudes beyond the earth's atmosphere. This spaceplane could perhaps be small enough for its weight to be lifted by the toroidal launch vessel, otherwise a smaller version of this vehicle might need to be constructed for this purpose.


The Dream Chaser Cargo System. Image by Ken Ulbrich for NASA

Conclusions (for the time being)

The only two major costs of each launch are the cost of the propane tank fuel and the cost of the electricity for the rail motors. Although the material pushed by the rail motors is very lightweight, it is also very large, covering an area of somewhere between 70.000 to 100.000 square meters or even more. This will still require a very high power consumption and very high electricity costs. Still, if this type of launch-vessel is able to function as an orbiter, then the cost of placing a satellite into orbit should still be lower than the cost of using a conventional rocket.

The large size can be a problem. If the airship gets out of control due to strong winds then there's no mechanism that allows to regain control of the orientation of the vessel. The vessel can only go upwards or downwards. Jet engines or propellers can be positioned at the exterior of the frame, but that would reduce the available surface area for the outer skin. Engines also increase the weight of the vessel and they would not be very effective at stabilizing an object that is 200 meters in diameter. A possible solution could be to hang the payload, which could be a satellite, far beneath the center of the vessel using long ropes, that way the stability of the entire vessel could increase.

A huge advantage is that this type of launch vessel can climb at slow pace to altitudes that were not reached previously by any type of balloon. The only man-made objects that are able to reach such heights today are combustion fuel rockets that fly at great speeds past these upper layers of the atmosphere. This type of vessel is able to remain stationary at very high altitudes, which allow scientists to conduct research within these upper regions of the atmosphere or collect weather data that surpasses conventional weather balloon capabilities.

 

PROS
  • Vessel can climb higher than any type of balloon
  • Gentle stable ascendance (maybe into orbit) and descendence
  • Lower cost to climb to very high altitude than conventional rockets
  • High safety for passengers (perhaps astronauts)
  • Vessel can be used for research in the upper atmosphere
CONS
  • Vessel can only go upwards and downwards
  • Although the vessel is mostly hollow, it also needs to be very large
  • Higher cost than balloons due to electricity and propane consumption
  • The vessel can only carry a low payload and small number of people
  • Vessel might not be able to operate during rainfall and strong wind

 

 

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A word that is often used on this website is the word 'vortex'. Many sources describe a vortex as a movement in a fluid that has a rotational flow. Yet many of the vortices that I describe on this website do not show a visible rotational flow. I took the liberty of using the word vortex for describing a phenomenon that had not been understood before, one that links together rotational and non-rotational movements. Even a movement in a straight line can in some cases be categorized as a vortex, if it is known that that movement is created by certain identical conditions. So keep in mind that the word 'vortex', within the context of the infinity-theory, has not the exact same meaning as other sources describe.