NASA successfully tests robot balloon meant to one day explore Venus

JPL’s Venus Aerial robotic balloon may soon be on a mission to Earth's sister planet.
Brittney Grimes
The prototype aerial robotic balloon.
The prototype aerial robotic balloon.

NASA/JPL-Caltech 

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has expanded on its preparation with the goal of one day exploring the surface of Venus. Part of the plan and research included NASA’s Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) launch. This was successfully completed over Nevada’s Black Rock desert, allowing the agency to prove its ability to control altitude, especially if headed to the planet.

The aerobot

The aerial robotic balloon prototype, also known as the aerobot, could one day “take to the Venusian skies,” NASA said on its website, after the balloon completed two test flights in Nevada without any issues.

The high pressure, extreme heat and gases on Venus’ surface makes it difficult to prepare any object to be sent there. The lack of hospitability on the planet can hinder even well-prepared spacecraft in a few hours. However, robotic exploration seems to be an option that could work in exploring the planet. A few miles above Venus, there is an area that would allow for an aerobot to move and operate safely.

The concept and prototype balloon

The idea NASA came up with includes “a balloon with a Venus orbiter, with the two working together to study Earth’s sister planet. 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.”

To test the concept, a research team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the Near Space Corporation — a high altitude/near space platforms and flight service provider — in Tillamook, Oregon, carried out the two successful flights of the prototype balloon that is one-third the size of one needed to explore Venus. The scientists and engineers wanted to test the balloon’s materials for the first time, allowing the team to assess the possibility of creating a full size aerobot that could explore Venus.

The silver balloon was able to fly 4,000 feet (1 kilometer) over Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to a location of Earth’s atmosphere that resembles the temperature and density the aerobot would experience about 180,000 feet (55 kilometers) above Venus, the engineers of JPL stated.

Successful test

This achievement by NASA shows that the aerobot could access a part of Venus that an orbiter would not be able to because it would be too low to reach. The aerobot could float above Venus for weeks or even months, which would give the researchers enough time to monitor the region’s atmosphere.

“We’re extremely happy with the performance of the prototype. It was launched, demonstrated controlled-altitude maneuvers, and was recovered in good condition after both flights,” said robotics technologist Jacob Izraelevitz, who also leads the balloon development as the JPL principal investigator of the flight tests.

“We’ve recorded a mountain of data from these flights and are looking forward to using it to improve our simulation models before exploring our sister planet,” he continued.

Past use of balloons for Venus’ exploration

Balloons were previously used to explore Venus in 1985 by the twin Soviet Vega 1 and 2 missions, according to NASA. The two balloons, both being about 11.5 feet (3.6 meters) in diameter, lasted about 46 hours on the mission before the batteries depleted. However, the short time the balloons lasted allowed researchers to envision what a longer-duration balloon could do in the Venusian atmosphere.

Future goals

The goal of the aerobot would be to travel on the Venusian winds and float above the planet for at least 100 days. It would serve as a platform for investigations and studies, monitoring “venusquakes” and analyzing the composition of clouds on the planet.

The orbiter attached to the aerobot would then gather information from the aerial robotic balloon and send it back to researchers on Earth, all while providing a view of Venus.

The team wants to allow the aerobot to raise and lower its altitude – something the Vega balloons couldn’t do – to further study Venus’ atmosphere between approximately 171,000 and 203,000 feet (52 and 62 kilometers).

“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 Paul Byrne, associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis and aerobot science collaborator.

The prototype and successful test flight have allowed researchers to get one step even closer to, one day, finally discovering the mysteries of Venus, its atmosphere and its surface.

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