Balloon bots might help uncover Venus’ hazy secrets

Balloon bots might help uncover Venus’ hazy secrets

After years of being ignored in favor of exploration of other distant locations in the solar system’s solar system, Venus is now experiencing renewed interest from researchers.

A new mission concept from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory could enable scientists to explore Venus like no other, and all this without ever touching the ground. It will instead soar high in the sky by balloon. While the NASA mission is still in its experimental stages, the concept involves pairing a small orbiter with an aerial robotic (or aerobot) balloon, about 40 feet in diameter. Despite being called Earth’s twin, Venus is often called the “twin” of Venus due to their similar size and structure. However, they are very different. While Earth is a world full of life, Venus is a primordial soup that may have destroyed any chances of being populated by living organisms. They are clearly fraternal, but not identical.

The orbiter would hover in the upper levels Venus’ atmosphere and use its powerful winds to circumnavigate Earth. It would also take scientific measurements of the planet, improving our knowledge about the planet’s twin. These experiments could include analyzing the chemical composition of Venus’ clouds and monitoring the atmosphere for acoustic wave that could reveal more about Venus-quakes.

A balloon could be the key to traversing Venus’ difficult environment, according to Paul Byrne , an associate Professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has been a long-time science collaborator. He explains that you can’t find other places in the solar system that are as welcoming as Venus and just above the cloud layer.

[Related: These scientists spent decades pushing NASA to go back to Venus. They’re now on a hot streak. ]

The second planet from the sun, the planet is perpetually encased in a thick cloud of carbon dioxide. This enables it to sustain some of the hottest temperatures in the solar system. It is so hot that every spacecraft sent to its surface by humanity has been destroyed and melted. Any spacecraft that intends to visit Venus would need to be able to withstand crushing pressures and endure sulfuric acid rain. These droplets of the atmosphere are so concentrated that they could easily burn through skin.

A balloon orbiter that hovers several miles above Venus’ surface could be capable of operating for several Earth months, according to Byrne. This is a significant leap from previous attempts to explore our nearest neighbor. Byrne says that the orbiter will drift across the Venusian skies, moving higher as it is pulled northward by the planet’s prevailing winds. “This means that we will not only be able to cover a large area of land, but we will also be in a position to understand the atmosphere at different times [of] the day.” It would be useful to collect data at different timestamps in order to create a more detailed picture about the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists may also be able answer other mysteries about the planet, such the lack intrinsic magnetic field ..

While balloon-technology might seem like an innovative alternative to the conventional spacecraft the US has used in the past like landers or rovers, a space superpower used buoyant devices to explore Venus many decades before. In the 1980s, the Soviet’s unveiled the wildly successful Vega program, twin spacecraft that were designed to deliver payloads of advanced landers and balloons to the surface. Scientists were able to unravel the intricate details of the planet’s weather system by using the data Vega sent back.

But now, more than 35 years later, the team at JPL and the Near Space Corporation recently completed two successful flight tests of a concept prototype in Nevada. The model is only one-third of the size of the craft if it were to become a real mission.

[Related: We finally know why Venus is absolutely radiant]

“This flight was designed to measure the flight dynamics and performance of the balloon,” said Jacob Izraelevitz ,, a robotics technologist at JPL. Izraelevitz stated that Nevada was chosen because it has the largest dry lake bed in the continental US. It would be easier to recover the craft from the vast open landscape and avoid any collisions with buildings or towers.

The team also noted that the flights revealed a lot of useful information. Based on the current estimate of the aerobot’s capabilities, they found that the balloon could carry about 100 kilograms of payload. This would allow them to carry solar panels and the communications technology required to transmit data back to Earth. Even though the mission is not intended to detect life, understanding the conditions that make Venus uninhabitable could help us understand the planet’s environments that could support life.

Caleb Turner, an aerospace project engineer at Near Space Corporation, says that the technology performed even better than expected. “These flight tests exposed the aerobot to its most extreme conditions yet, albeit nothing compared to the harsh Venus atmosphere, and it demonstrated a resilience that was beyond expectations,” he told Popular Science in an email. The prototype was able to withstand balloon inflation and launch, as well as landing at multiple altitudes. Turner claims that they were able do a second test just a day later. This feat of repetition is remarkable and gives everyone involved a boost of confidence that the work is ready for a Venus mission .”


Though it could be years before NASA sends this aerobot mission to the stars, the agency has already promised to head back to Venus with the upcoming VERITAS and Davinci missions, both slated for no earlier than 2028. This is a stunning destination that we should explore again as we continue to look beyond our own planet to see other Earth-like planets.

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