A 178-foot blimp that some residents have spotted above the Baltimore region in recent days is a manned, government research airship conducting aerial mapping, according to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
The MZ-3A "lighter-than-air" blimp began roaming above the greater Washington, D.C. area on Sept. 21, and will be operating in the region through Oct. 5, according to the laboratory.
It is stationed at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River.
The propeller-driven blimp, which can remain "aloft and nearly stationary" for more than 12 hours, is government owned. It is being operated by the laboratory and the Navy's science and technology research squadron.
Its presence in the area sparked conversations on social media among residents who wondered what it was doing.
With the permission of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration, the blimp is mapping within the "flight restriction zone" around Washington, D.C., including at U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities in Beltsville and U.S. Army Fort Belvoir in Fairfax, Va.
It is also traveling throughout the area, going to Frederick Municipal Airport and further southwest in Virginia, the laboratory said.
When its mission is complete, it will be traveling north through the region to the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Lakehurst, N.J.
The blimp is being flown by pilots with contractor Integrated Systems Solutions, which the laboratory said "employs highly qualified commercial blimp pilots whom the Navy has approved to command the airship."
The blimp, which has two 180-horsepower engines, is large — able to travel at 50 knots and carry a 2,500 pound payload.