When it comes to planetary exploration, we’re a little obsessed with Mars, and we have been for quite some time. But Dale Arney and Chris Jones from the Space Mission Analysis Branch of NASA’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate at the Langley Research Center think we ought to turn our attention to Venus.
Venus hasn’t traditionally gotten a lot of love where planetary exploration is concerned. That’s due in large part to the planet’s hostile environment that makes landing on and exploring its surface a real challenge. The pressure of the atmosphere on the surface is 92 times what we feel on Earth, and the average temperature is around 930 degrees Fahrenheit. Getting to and surviving on Venus’ surface is hard enough for a robot, let alone a manned mission. Since the four Soviet Venera landers touched down in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we haven’t really given in-depth in situ exploration of Venus much thought. But what if we stayed in the atmosphere? What if we had a Cloud City?
That’s what Arney and Jones have suggested. NASA’s High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (or aptly named HAVOC) mission would have astronauts riding through the Venusian atmosphere in a solar-powered airship. And it’s not that crazy. Here’s what the mission might look like.
The airship would launch first, ensconced in its own spacecraft, settling into orbit around Venus. The crew of two astronauts would launch later. They would rendezvous and dock with their airship. Then the pair would plunge into Venus’ atmosphere. From here, a lot would have to happen quite quickly. The aeroshell protecting the airship would fall away, exposing it to the elements. It would start to inflate as it fell, gradually getting larger. The larger it gets, the slower it falls; the larger surface area increases drag. Once the airship is fully inflated with helium, it will stop falling and float at a sweet spot about 30 miles above the surface.
This 30-mile altitude is important. Thirty miles above Venus’ surface, the environment is actually pretty Earth-like. The atmospheric pressure is about 1 bar, which is like sea level on Earth, the gravity is slightly less than we experience on Earth, and the temperature is a more manageable 167 degrees Fahrenheit. What’s more, Venus has plenty of sunlight at that altitude so solar panels on the top of the airship would provide more than enough power for the crew habitat and lab, both of which would be slung underneath the airship.
Following an unmanned mission that would check out the environment first, the crew would spend just 30 days riding the equatorial winds of Venus, making one circle around the planet every 110 minutes. Then their spacecraft would propel them back into orbit around Venus from which point they would begin the journey home.
The team behind HAVOC say it’s actually a viable concept that would need just moderate technological advances. It would, however, demand the a new rocket to launch which is a separate endeavor all its own. Regardless, a dedicated mission to Venus and a manned one at that would unlock the secrets of our other planetary neighbor, the scorching hot one whose day lasts a year and rotates on its axis in the opposite direction of all the other planets. It would be neat to figure out Venus’ past.
For more on the HAVOC concept mission, check out the article on IEEE Spectrum.