Nuclear-powered Airships

So I had an interesting discussion with Ms. Carlysle last Tuesday. Over the last year, she has been trying, with some success, to temper my knee jerk debunkery. She posited about military experimentation with nuclear powered, stealthy, airships as an explanation of some recent UFO sightings. Various governments and military establishments have been thinking about the idea since the 1950s.1,2,3

The idea is intriguing. Such airships could stay aloft for months, or even years, without refueling. Mostly, the limitations on duration would be food and consumables and the slow helium loss through the gasbags. Helium and food could be replenished by tending aircraft.

Wikipedia points to evidence that the Russians did experiment with nuclear aircraft but these were heavier than air craft using some kind of variation on nuclear thermal rockets. This research was abandoned because the radioactive exhaust from these rockets was an environmental nightmare. I’m guessing that various nuclear test ban treaties also forbid further research.

An airship would be different. It would only use the reactor to generate electricity to drive conventional propellers and turbines. The gasbags of airship could be made large enough to lift a heavily shielded reactor of sufficient size. Nuclear airships would be like nuclear submarines.

So why haven’t these things been built?

  • It’s hard, but not impossible, to make giant balloons less visible to radar, infrared and eyes.
  • Airships aren’t fast. This prevents some military applications.
  • Public worry over nuclear reactors flying overhead.
  • The difficulty of finding a task for these airships that can’t be met, more cheaply, in some other way.

Nuclear airships might be like that other science fiction dream, the personal jet-pack. Sure it’s doable but expensive, limited and not really that useful.

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3 Responses to Nuclear-powered Airships

  1. Odin says:

    I know that I bitched about Sky Captain but I have to admit that I am in favor of any movie with Zeppelins in it 🙂
    gee why would the public be worried about nuclear reactors flying overhead?
    but uh how stealthy could these things be really, especially as the evidence sited for their existence was that mass sighting by thousands of people?

  2. Pace Arko says:

    Yeah, the acting in that movie totally sucked but it was great eye candy wasn’t it?

    As far as nuclear reactors in airships goes though. It might really depend on how government sells it. We’ve had nuclear reactors in patrolling naval surface ships and submarines for decades. They’ve been sitting in naval harbors for decades. There have been many protests but the US, Russian, French, British, etc. Navies are unlikely to give up such technology any time soon. There are just too many advantages to it.

    If there was some clear military advantage to be had by nuclear powered airships, we’d have them, environmentalist protests or not.

    Please note, I’m not advocating such aircraft. I’m just exploring the idea in abstract. (Of course the road to Hell is paved with our damned monkey curiosity! Can’t just leave well enough alone.) I think Carlysle’s point was just to get me to entertain the idea that the military could be testing experimental aircraft and this could be explain several UFO sightings.

    If these airships were prototypes, maybe they aren’t very stealthy at all. So some hick gas station attendent near Nellis Air Force Base (Home of the infamous Area 51) sees giant, silent black rectangles in the night sky. That might mean the military hasn’t worked out all the bugs yet. The stealth bombers and steath fighters were tested for years, probably spurring many UFO sightings in Nevada, before our government admitted to having them.

    I’m willing to entertain the idea. However, I still maintain its only anecdotal evidence and thus not conclusive proof.

    The other thing is these airships don’t really have to be nuclear powered. They could be entirely solar. Being airships, they’d have a huge surface area to put photovoltaic cells on. They’d spend most of their time above clouds. At night, they’d go into power conservation and run off batteries. The question: Are there real military applications to justify building these things?

  3. Bakafish says:

    Well just from a thought experiment perspective, with enough altitude a very large lighter than air craft could be made very visibly stealthy by extremely low tech means. During world war II it was discovered that simply matching the luminosity was enough to render planes virtually invisible at a distance. Some experimental intercepters had two large lamps mounted at the leading edge of their wings, using a simple photo receptor system they varied their brightness allowing the plane to approach to within killing distance without being detected. By using translucent materials and fairly basic illumination sources I’d be willing to bet I could make a damn large airship invisible to human scrutiny at cruse altitude in any conditions.
    As for replenishing Helium, I would find it hard to believe that anyone would be stupid enough to use Helium at this point Hydrogen is the least dangerous thing you’d be worried about on such a vessel. It has been pretty well established that the Hindenburg was a victim not of Hydrogen, but of using a reflective coating more suitable for powering a solid fuel rocket (seriously, it was like powdered Aluminum in some sort of Oxidizer base.) With the limitless power provided by a reactor we get to pull water out of the air to store as ballast, coolant and drink and crack it into very useful Hydrogen to top off our bags at will.
    The most difficult thing obviously is to keep the thing invisible to radar, which just isn’t going to happen. It’s also going to have a pretty serious thermal signature and would be trivial for even a second class world power to detect and knock down. It would therefore need to be treated like an aircraft carrier with some sort of permanent defensive stand off fleet and use serious counter measures. Having a reactor allows you to do wasteful things like zap ground to air missiles with high powered lasers and rail guns, but it seems to me that it just wouldn’t have the upsides over a conventional aircraft carrier.

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