Astronomers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have stars in their eyes—and that starlight interferes with views of distant planets. This spring, NASA will test its first starshade, a disk-shaped screen that blocks light from the atmosphere to give scientists a better look. To lift the starshade to a sufficient height and allow it to hover in one place, NASA will depend on an old aircraft re-emerging as the 21st century’s next technological helpmeet—a 246-foot zeppelin named Eureka. The zeppelin, one of only two operating in the world, has a rigid inner structure of aluminum and carbon fiber, a skin of multi-layer laminate fabric and is filled with nonflammable helium gas, with engines that can hold the craft still or move it across the sky at 78 miles per hour.
Brian and Alexandra Hall initially launched Airship Ventures, Mountain View, Calif., to promote “flightseeing” for commercial passengers. However, the zeppelin turns out to be the perfect platform for science, surveillance and technology equipment that works best in an aircraft that can hover in one place for hours. The Eureka gives paying passengers the flight of a lifetime, but also carries commercial cameras to film sporting events; gear to monitor carbon dioxide and methane emissions; magnetometers to scout for undiscovered earthquake fault lines; and infrared sensors to detect invasion. A team of pilots, engineers and ground staff work on special missions to explore new uses with customers.