NASA aims to send a lander that can survive Venus' crushing atmosphere

Firstly, the space agency must develop a battery that can withstand Venus' hellish conditions.
Chris Young
An illustration of LLISSE-1
An illustration of LLISSE-1

Lunar and Planetary Institute 

You may be surprised to learn that humans have sent several landers to Venus' surface.

The Soviet Venera missions, for example, transmitted the first-ever image from another planet on October 20, 1975, after sending its Venera 9 lander to the surface of Venus.

That mission lasted less than two hours on the planet's surface due to the immense atmospheric pressure and scorching temperatures on Earth's so-called evil twin.

Now, NASA aims to build a lander called LLISSE, that can withstand those conditions and beam a wealth of data about our nearest planetary neighbor back to Earth. To do so, it will have to build a battery capable of withstanding incredibly harsh conditions.

A battery to withstand Venus' hellish atmosphere

Sending a lander to Venus does have one advantage. While NASA's Mars Perseverance rover endured "seven minutes of terror" before touching down on the red planet in early 2021, Venus' atmosphere is so thick that a lander would gently descend to the surface without the need for retrorockets.

The challenge lies on the surface itself.

Average temperatures on Venus' surface stand at 455 degrees C (850 F), which is hot enough to melt lead. The atmospheric pressure on the planet's surface is roughly equivalent to being at an ocean depth of 1,500 meters (5,000 ft). If that weren't enough, chemicals in the atmosphere, including sulphuric acid, will quickly corrode any electronic parts.

NASA has been working on a solution with a company called Advanced Thermal Batteries, Inc. (ATB). Together, the two organizations developed the first battery that they believed could withstand Venus' temperatures for an entire Venus day — a Venus day is equivalent to approximately 120 Earth days.

The battery uses a technology based on short-lived thermal battery systems to power intelligent missiles. It contains 17 individual cells and is built with structural materials and specific chemistry to withstand conditions on Venus.

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The battery developers will utilize the scorching conditions on Venus to their advantage. The incredibly high temperatures on the planet's surface will heat a specially-selected electrolyte that would otherwise be solid and inert at ambient temperatures on Earth.

Building towards a Venus lander mission

The ATB battery is still in the development phase, but early tests indicate that the battery will, indeed, be able to withstand the conditions of our planetary neighbor. The technology could also be deployed for deep space missions, where conditions could also be challenging using standard space batteries.

In a NASA press statement, Dr. Kevin Wepasnick, ATB Project Engineer said "this recent battery technology demonstration, with improved architecture and low self-discharge electrochemistry, is a huge accomplishment that many may have not thought possible."

All of this work could one day help to power one of several upcoming Venus missions, NASA's Long-Lived In situ Solar System Explorer (LLISSE). The space agency will aim to operate the lander on Venus for approximately 60 days, collecting science data that will be beamed back to Earth via a Venus orbiter.

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