Chalk this one up in the “stories you didn’t expect to hear today” category. Because, well, an airship that effectively looks like a giant ass might be used to study the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation in the universe.
Called Airlander 10, the huge vehicle took flight for the first time in August 2016. Filled with helium, it is 92 meters (302 feet) long, making it the largest aircraft in operation today. It could theoretically stay in the air for weeks, once it’s fully up and running.
And in a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team led by Stephen Feeney from Imperial College London has proposed using the aircraft to study the CMB, the remnant of the expansion of the universe shortly after the Big Bang.
“The main advantage is flight duration,” Feeney told Space.com. “Using remote piloting, Airlander 10 should fly for up to three weeks at a time.”
To observe the CMB, you really need to be as far out of Earth’s atmosphere as possible. We’ve previously done this using spacecraft, doing observations from the poles (where the atmosphere is thinner), and using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is a modified 747 plane.
However, Airlander 10 could greatly extend observation times at high altitude at a much lesser cost than using a spacecraft. Utilizing the airship, it could be possible to even observe gravitational waves from the inflation period of the universe, about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. The team is calling this AirlanderCMB.
In its paper, the team outlines many benefits of Airlander 10. These include its rapid turnaround time, which means a mission could be ready to fly in days rather than waiting years on a rocket launch. The scientists note that if civil regulations for remote piloting of Airlander 10 are in place by 2019, it could be ready to start full operations by 2024.
“Given the cost and development time of a space mission, novel platforms such as AirlanderCMB could play a very important role in defining our ultimate view of the polarized microwave sky,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
At the time of writing, we hadn’t yet heard back from the Airlander 10 team about the possibility of such a mission going ahead. But it sounds pretty good to us.