Naval Air Warfare Center Awards Contract to Develop a Solar Powered Stratospheric Airship

GNSS Star*Light

COLORADO SPRINGS, COL - Speaking in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas, on May 8, 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he is looking for a way to pare at least $10 billion a year from the U.S. Defense budget. He went on to say, "The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time", referring to the size of the U.S. Defense budget of the last few years. Given the current state of the U.S. economy authorities believe that deep cuts in other parts of the federal budget are likely as well. So the challenge is how are the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and National Intelligence going to provide for our nation’s security on fewer dollars especially during a time of attempted terrorist attacks in New York City, drug cartel wars on our Southern border, and an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan?

A service-disabled veteran owned business headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, led by a retired U.S. Air Force Major General, believes it may have a partial solution to the current national security challenge. Near Space Systems (NSS) has developed a family of lighter-than-air unmanned aerial vehicles that can provide continuous sensing and communications relay services for weeks and, in some cases, months on end. These lighter-than-air renewable-energy-powered platforms operate at approximately one-tenth the cost of traditional aerial platforms and one one-hundredth the cost of space platforms. Market research firms now predict that unmanned aerial vehicles flying high above the jet stream in the Earth’s stratosphere will soon replace traditional aerial surveillance platforms, as well as some planned satellite constellations. Once fielded, these high altitude stratospheric vehicles will provide an array of sensing and communications services that will result in savings of billions of dollars a year for U.S. taxpayers.

The U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Center recently awarded Near Space Systems a contract to begin development of a next generation stratospheric airship with a radically new design (pictured at right.) This vehicle, appropriately named StarLight, will deliver unprecedented performance in operating altitude, flight duration and forward velocity. This uniquely designed persistent lighter-than-air vehicle will operate at 85,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Powered solely by energy from the sun, a StarLight constellation flying in the Earth’s upper atmosphere can provide continuous wide-area communications networking and sensing services for defense, security and commercial purposes. Unlike today’s UAVs and manned aircraft, StarLight does not burn petroleum-based fuels and is therefore environmentally friendly and efficient to operate.

The StarLight Stratoship filled with either hydrogen or helium gas will simply float like a helium-filled party balloon to achieve altitude. Once at altitude, the power to station keep in the winds of the Earth’s upper atmosphere will be provided by highly efficient brushless electric motors similar to the ones that have been developed by the automobile industry for electric cars and hybrid vehicles. These electric motors will power large propellers that have been specially designed to operate in the thin air of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. John Hawley, Major General, USAF (retired), founder and CEO of Near Space Systems, stated, "We very much appreciate the Navy's foresight in developing this technology and are equally delighted we can offer a capability that directly supports Secretary Gates' stated need to cut defense spending while not sacrificing the safety and security of our citizens."

While StarLight supports U.S. national security interests in numerous ways, it can also support scientific research and accelerate economic development in nations around the world. As General Hawley says, "This is exciting. There are many nations that cannot afford a space program, but they can afford a near space program." When operating from the upper stratosphere for months at a time, StarLight will provide the strategic vantage of space, but at 1 1/100th the cost. StarLight will be able to remain overhead a country to provide a nation-wide wireless, broadband network that can connect every citizen to distance learning institutions, telemedicine capabilities, weather forecasts, public information, new technology and lucrative worldwide markets.

From the upper stratosphere, world scientists will be able to extensively and affordably study the Earth, as well as space. Without harming the environment, StarLight can collect vast amounts of scientific data to enable world scientists to accurately analyze climate change, habitat, natural resources, air and water quality, weather and conduct countless other important scientific studies.

Without a doubt, engineers and scientists throughout the scientific community are excited about recent advances in solar cell efficiencies, battery storage capacities, electric motor efficiencies and lightweight gas envelope materials. They see these four technologies as key enablers for long endurance flight in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The impact on U.S. national security and global economic development will be significant. Some believe it will be as significant as the first automobile, the first ship, the first airplane and the first satellite. Only time will tell, but there is definitely a new frontier for scientists, engineers and businesses such as GNSS to explore.

To learn more, please visit:

John Hawley, CEO

(719) 685-8108