A space drone will soon fly into the atmosphere of Venus
– News of July 10, 2018 –
A helicopter drone will be sent by NASA to Mars in 2020. Beyond the technical feat, the control of atmospheric flight on other objects of the solar system could open the way to a new type of exploration. Space drones can provide very detailed views of the surface of a celestial body and can take measurements of the atmosphere at different altitudes. The Venus atmosphere is of particular interest to the US Space Agency. Scientific models based on the global warming of the Earth have shown that Venus was able to shelter liquid water in its past, about two billion years ago. If this hypothesis is confirmed, it means that the lakes and oceans of Venus have disappeared much more recently than those of Mars. This could restore interest to a mission of exploration of Venus, the closest neighbor of the Earth. To be sure, you need to learn more about the suffocating atmosphere of Venus : an ideal mission for a space drone.
NASA has just signed a contract with Black Swift Technologies to build a prototype of drone capable of surviving in the upper Venusian atmosphere. Indeed, the conditions are very close to those of the Earth’s atmosphere. This even pushes some researchers to think that a microbial life could develop there. If a Venusian drone flying at about fifty kilometers altitude will not suffer too much in terms of temperatures and atmospheric pressure, it will still face violent winds. The choice of the energy source of the drone will also be essential : it is impossible to land on the ground to recharge the batteries, as the March 2020 mission drone will do. The space drone must therefore ensure its lift by spending as little energy as possible. Several solutions are under study : the strong winds of the upper Venusian atmosphere could be used to keep the drone in the air, like a bird that stays motionless in a draft. The space drone could also be partially inflated with a light gas, which would make it a hybrid between an airplane and an aerostat. Solar panels would provide the energy needed for scientific instruments and perhaps even a small propulsion system.
Black Swift Technologies needs to make the details of its space drone concept in six months. NASA will then decide what to do next. The most difficult will probably have to find a mission because Venus is a little neglected by the exploration efforts of space agencies. Some overflights are planned, by Bepi Colombo and Parker Solar probe during their travels to Mercury and to the sun. The greatest hope that a drone will explore the upper atmosphere of Venus is a Russian mission that will be launched during the second half of the next decade. Roscosmos proposed to NASA to collaborate on the mission, a collaboration that could take the form of an atmospheric drone. The good news is that the Russians have a great experience of Venusian missions. The Soviet Union has indeed led many more missions to Venus than NASA and all landers who have reached the ground of Venus are Russian.
Image by NASA