This Robot Balloon Could Someday Unravel Mysteries Of Venus

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This Robot Balloon Could Someday Unravel Mysteries Of Venus

Mars might be astronomers’ favorite neighboring planet due to its potential of holding signs of ancient life, but Venus is not far behind in the race. The second closest planet to the Sun might soon witness a mission from NASA, ESA, and New Zealand spaceflight company Rocket Lab. While the planet is inhospitable, NASA plans on exploring it by deploying a robotic balloon called “aerobot” in its atmosphere.

 

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) recently completed two test flights of an aerobot prototype and successfully showcased controlled altitude flights. Sending a spacecraft to Venus would be a tough nut to crack, as the planet has extremely high pressure, corrosive gases, and intense heat that might hamper the mission before it even starts exploring the planet. However, a few miles above the inhospitable zone is an area where an aerobot might be able to float safely.

What Do These Test Flights Mean For The Mission?

“One concept envisions pairing a balloon with a Venus orbiter, the two working in tandem to study Earth’s sister planet,” NASA JPL’s website reads. “While the orbiter would remain far above the atmosphere, taking science measurements and serving as a communication relay, an aerial robotic balloon, or aerobot, about 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter, would travel into it.”

The prototype robot balloon is equipped with a helium-filled inner reservoir and a helium balloon that can expand and contract. Helium passes through vents between the inner and outer sections, changing buoyancy levels accordingly and letting scientists control the altitude of the robot.

JPL engineers put its design to the test by conducting two flights of a prototype smaller than the aerobot destined to go to Venus. The team managed to fly the balloon at a height of 1km, a similar place in Earth’s atmosphere that mimics the density aerobot would experience at 55km above Venus, JPL noted.

What Will Aerobot Do On Venus?

The successful tests mean the robot balloon could float above Venus for weeks or months, giving astronomers ample time to observe the atmosphere for waves created by venusquakes. Besides, scientists will be able to analyze the chemical composition of Venus’ clouds alongside other missions. All the data will be sent back to teams back on Earth with an accompanying orbiter.

“The success of these test flights is a huge deal for us: We’ve successfully demonstrated the technology we’ll need for investigating the clouds of Venus,” said aerobot science collaborator Paul Byrne. “These tests form the foundation for how we can achieve long-term robotic exploration high above Venus’ hellish surface.”

It isn’t the first time balloons have been considered a viable option to explore the neighboring planet. A similar design was seen on the twin Soviet Vega 1 and 2 missions in 1985. Only time will tell if the aerobot ever makes it to the Venusian atmosphere, but going by the successful test flights we might see a similar mission exploring Venus in the coming years.

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