NASA moves closer to Venus mission after successful balloon test

A prototype aerial robotic balloon, or aerobot, is prepared for a sunrise test flight in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, in July 2022, by team members from JPL and Near Space Corporation.

The team prepares the prototype aerial robotic balloon for a test flight over the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Photo: Nasa

NASA wants to send a giant silver balloon to the hellish world of venuswhere the floating robot would explore the toxic atmosphere of Venus. Functional testing of a smaller prototype recently took place in a Nevada desert in preparation for this upcoming mission to the hellish solar system.

The prototype aerial robotic balloon, or aerobot, has just completed two successful test flights over Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. A team of scientists and engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory observed the shimmering balloon flying at an altitude of around 4,000 feet (1,000 meters) from below. Conditions in this part of the earth’s atmosphere are somewhat similar to conditions found on Venus, but at heights reaching 180,000 feet (55 kilometers) above its scorched lands surface.

JPL’s Venus Aerobot Aces prototype test flights over Nevada

“The success of these test flights is very important to us: we have successfully demonstrated the technology we will need to study Venus’s clouds,” said Paul Byrne, associate professor at the University of Washington at Saint-Louis and scientific collaborator in aerobot. , said in a statement. “These tests form the basis for how we can achieve long-term robotic exploration above the hellish surface of Venus.”

Venus is essentially Earth’s evil twin. Neighboring planets share a past analogous to two rocky worlds of similar size and density, but Venus now enjoys extreme conditions that make it inhospitable to probes. The planet’s average temperature is over 850 degrees Fahrenheit (450 degrees Celsius), with a volcanic landscape and a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere. The atmosphere of Venus is also full of thick clouds of sulfuric acid that make it nearly impossible for spacecraft to image the planet’s surface.

The prototype material was first tested in the Nevada desert.

The prototype material was first tested in the Nevada desert.
Photo: Near Space Corporation

The team behind the aerobot balloon designed it with a multi-layered material that includes an acid-resistant coating, a layer of metallization to reduce solar heating, and a rigid inner layer that makes it capable of carrying scientific instruments, according to NASA . “The materials used for Venus survivability are difficult to fabricate, and the robust handling we demonstrated during the launch and recovery in Nevada gives us confidence in the reliability of the balloon on Venus,” said Tim. Lachenmeier, chief executive of Near Space Corporation and co-investigator for the mission concept, said in a statement. Near Space built the balloon with techniques it uses to create aerospace inflatables on Earth.

It’s also not a single balloon, but rather a “ball within a balloon” design. A rigid inner tank is filled with helium under high pressure, which sits inside a larger outer helium balloon that can expand and contract. This design will allow the balloon to change altitude as it cruises through the Venusian atmosphere. the aerobot will pump helium into the outer balloon to give it more buoyancy, then pump it into the tank to lower its altitude. The prototype is three times smaller than the final product destined for Venus.

The aerobot will not be alone during the mission. An accompanying orbiter will take scientific measurements and relay data between balloon and ground controllers on earth. The couple will observe Venus for approximately 100 days, analyzing the chemical composition of clouds and monitoring the atmosphere for acoustic waves caused by Venus tremors.

The team prepared the aerobot balloon for takeoff.

The team prepared the aerobot balloon for takeoff.
Photo: Near Space Corporation

This is not the first time that scientists have sent a balloon to Venus. In 1985, the twin of the Soviet Union Vega 1 and 2 probescomposed of balloons and landers, arrived on the planet, but only lasted about 46 hours due to limited battery life. Aerobot mission should last longer.

“We have recorded a mountain of data from these flights and we look forward to using it to improve our simulation models before exploring our sister planet,” said robotics technologist Jacob Izraelevitz, who is leading the balloon’s development as as JPL’s Principal Investigator of Flight Tests. , said in a statement.

NASA has not sent a dedicated probe to Venus since the Magellan program, which arrived on the planet in 1989. Later that decade, however, NASA DAVINCI probe will head for Venus, where it will dive through venus atmosphere before landing on its surface. DAVINCI is one of next three Venus missionswith the superhot planet finally becomes the attention it deserves – with our apologies to Mars fans.

After: NASA’s DAVINCI mission will dive into the hellish atmosphere of Venus