Mars is getting a lot of earthlings’ attention these days, but Venus has come under more and more of the spotlight recently, with NASA, its European counterpart ESA and New Zealand spaceflight company Rocket Lab all planning to send missions there in the years to come.
In addition to this, NASA is also planning to explore the inhospitable planet by navigating a robotic “aerobot” balloon in the Venusian winds.
As part of research for the potential mission, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) recently conducted two test flights of a prototype aerobot over Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, successfully demonstrating flights at controlled altitude in the process.
Sending a spacecraft to Venus is a tricky proposition because its extremely high pressure, intense heat and corrosive gases would render it unusable in just a few hours. But a few tens of kilometers above the inhospitable zone is an area in which an aerobot could maneuver safely.
“One concept envisions pairing a balloon with a Venus orbiter, with the two working in tandem to study Earth’s sister planet,” JPL explains on its website. “While the orbiter would remain high above the atmosphere, taking scientific measurements and serving as a communications relay, an aerial robotic balloon, or aerobot, about 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter, would travel there. “
The prototype balloon includes a rigid inner tank filled with helium and an outer helium balloon capable of expanding and contracting. Helium vents allow gas to pass between the inner and outer section, changing buoyancy levels and giving scientists a way to control the altitude of the aerobot.
To test the design, scientists and engineers from JPL and Near Space Corporation – a commercial provider of high-altitude near-space platforms – conducted two flights to test a prototype balloon about one-third the size. the size of one that would go to Venus.
The balloon flew 4,000 feet (1 kilometer) to a location in Earth’s atmosphere similar to the density the aerobot would experience about 180,000 feet (55 kilometers) above Venus, JPL said.
The success of the Nevada tests suggests that the aerobot could hover above Venus for weeks or even months, enough time to monitor the atmosphere for acoustic waves generated by Venus quakes and analyze the chemical composition of the clouds. of the planet, among other mission objectives, with all the collected data sent back to Earth via the accompanying orbiter.
“We are extremely pleased with the performance of the prototype,” said JPL robotics technologist Jacob Izraelevitz. “It was launched, demonstrated maneuvers at controlled altitude and was recovered in good condition after both flights.”
Izraelevitz added: “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.”
Balloons have been considered a viable method for Venus exploration since the Soviets successfully used such a design in the twin Soviet missions Vega 1 and 2 in 1985. Both helium-filled balloons sailed on the Venusian winds for just over 46 hours. before the batteries in their instruments run out. “Their short stay in the Venusian atmosphere provided a tantalizing hint of the science that could be achieved by a larger, longer-lived balloon platform floating in the planet’s atmosphere,” JPL said.
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