A prototype balloon that could one day fly through the clouds of Venus has successfully completed two test flights over Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Venus‘ is a formidable reputation, that of a world of scorching heat, crushing air pressure and unbearable carbon dioxide. Yet the environment 1,200 meters above the Black Rock Desert is not much different from what can be found in Atmosphere of Venus between 30 and 40 miles (50 to 60 kilometers) above the ground. At this altitude on Venus, the temperature ranges from 32 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (0 to 65 degrees Celsius), while the air density is about the same as on Earth. Overall it’s really very forgiving. It was these conditions that led to speculation that microbial life could survive in the clouds of Venus.
The prototype aerobot, which is short for “aerial robotic balloon”, is about 12 feet (4 meters) in diameter and is essentially a balloon within a balloon. The inner balloon contains high pressure helium, which is less dense than air. To lift the aerobot, the inner balloon vents helium into the flexible outer balloon, which then inflates, increasing the aerobot’s overall buoyancy. To descend, helium is simply pumped into the inner balloon, causing the outer balloon to contract.
“The success of these test flights is a huge deal for us,” said Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St, Louis, Missouri, who is collaborating on the aerobot. statement. “We have successfully demonstrated the technology we will need to study the clouds of Venus.”
Related: Planet Venus: 20 interesting facts about the burning world
Co-designed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and the Near Space Corporation in Oregon, the aerobot which flew over Black Rock Desert does not imitate any mission yet selected by NASA to go to Venus. However, if such a mission were to be launched, the aerobot would fly to Venus alongside an orbiting spacecraft, which would do its own science and also transmit data from the aerobot back to Earth. The final aerobot design would be around 40 feet (12 m) in diameter.
In the atmosphere of Venus, the aerobot would float through the clouds, pushed by the strong winds of the planet. He wouldn’t have much say in his direction.
“Zonal winds – east to west – are very strong and constant on Venus,” wrote Jacob Izraelevitz in an email to Space.com. Izraelevitz is a robotics technologist at JPL and a principal investigator of test flights. ‘The Atmosphere’super spin‘ from the surface at 60 to 80 meters per second [200 to 260 feet per second] where we would fly. There is no hope of returning the ball, and first ordering the ball just follows the wind.”
Balloons have flown to Venus before. In 1985, the Soviet Union launched the twin missions Vega 1 and 2 which each deployed a balloon into the atmosphere of Venus. The balloons survived less than two days before running out of battery. Izraelevitz says the aerobot would be powered by solar power, because even with Venus’ thick, cloudy atmosphere, between 30 and 40 miles away, there’s more than enough sunlight to power a solar mission of at least less than 100 days. Even the problem of clouds laden with deadly sulfuric acid can be denied – Izraelevitz noted that another JPL team is developing acid-erosion-resistant solar panels.
While the aerobot drifting through the Venusian clouds would not need propulsion, the solar panels would generate power for the arsenal of scientific instruments the aerobot would carry. These devices range from mass spectrometers that could sample and analyze constituents of the atmosphere to detectors that could measure acoustic waves reverberating through the thick atmosphere, perhaps from earthquakes on the surface. With the recent controversial phosphine detection in the atmosphere of Venus, and the potential biological implications of this discovery, life detection experiments would also be an important cargo.
Currently, NASA has two jobs to developing Venus — da vinci (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry and Imaging), which drop a probe into the atmosphere of Venus in 2031, and VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy), which is an orbiter that will be launched for Venus in December 2027. The European Space Agency also has a new Venus mission, Envisionwhich will be launched in the early 2030s, and the next decade is already being hailed as the “decade of Venus explorationHowever, none of the aforementioned missions will carry an Aerobot, meaning our balloon adventures on Venus will have to wait a little longer.
Nevertheless, when that day comes, the aerobot will be ready.
“We are extremely pleased with the performance of the prototype,” Izraelevitz said in the statement.
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