Lighter-than-air spacecraft might one day help explore the clouds of Venus and investigate signs of ancient life on the planet.
Proposed in 2014 by Northrop Grumman, the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverability Platform (VAMP) project would deploy crewed inflatable aircraft from space to skim Venus' upper atmosphere.
Now, a press release from West Virginia University reveals that engineers are developing software to allow spacecraft similar to these to navigate Venus' atmosphere autonomously.
Could we send humans to Venus?
The statement, brought to our attention by Universe Today says the main goal of the new project is to "propose a software solution that will allow hybrid aerobots to explore the atmosphere of Venus." The researchers claim that their software would optimize flight paths while accounting for strong winds and sunlight intensity, allowing it to plan the crafts flights for the longest periods possible.
Northrop Grumman's original concept design was for a self-inflatable craft that would be light enough to fly with little energy, at the same time as being stable enough to navigate Venus' strong atmospheric winds. During the day it would harvest energy from the Sun, while at night it would glide using almost no power. Other recent proposals include NASA's High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), which would send crewed missions to explore Venus' clouds using large solar-powered blimps.
As The Verge pointed out in 2015, many scientists actually see Venus as a practical alternative to sending humans to Mars. Its orbital cycle is closer to Earth for most of the year. Though the planet's scorching hot surface is uninhabitable, a settlement floating in Venus' clouds would be exposed to temperatures similar to those on Earth. Northrop Grumman's VAMP craft might be deployable from such a habitat.
Venus was once a habitable Earth-like planet
If a VAMP spacecraft ever does go to Venus, it will gather information and provide valuable information for any other future exploration missions. As the West Virginia University researchers point out, recent research shows that Venus went through a climate change process that transformed its surface from an Earth-like planet into an inhabitable hell-like world. As such, any information gathered by future missions might provide valuable insight into the climate on Earth.
In 2020, meanwhile, a study showed there is a possibility the clouds of Venus are harboring alien life due to the presence of a "biosignature" called phosphine. So, thanks to the likes of the West Virginia University researchers and Northrop Grumman, we might soon see a fleet of autonomous gliding aircraft uncover the mysteries hiding in Venus' clouds. First though, they will have to develop software that will account for the conditions at the upper reaches of the planet's atmosphere.