NASA's new bird-like drones could unlock the secrets of Venus’ atmosphere

A new suite of conceptual fleets could be on their way in the coming years.
Christopher McFadden
The new inflatable drones.NASA

NASA has recently announced a series of futuristic space technology concepts that they have selected for further development. The concepts range widely in design and purpose but do include an interesting bird-like inflatable drone that could be sent to Venus to study its atmosphere and weather patterns from afar.

All of the selected concepts are still very much in their early stages of development, and not yet considered official NASA missions.

The bird-like drone forms part of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program whose purpose is to fund early-stage studies to evaluate technologies that could support future aeronautics and space missions. The current round of funding is set to provide around $5.1 million to 17 research projects from a total of 9 states of the United States.

“As we set our sights on ever more challenging destinations for exploration with humans and robots, innovative ideas and future thinking will be critical to helping us reach new milestones,” NASA's Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said. “Concepts like those being studied with this new round of NIAC funding are helping us expand the scope of the possible so we can make it a reality,” she added.

The current round of funding allows 12 proposed projects, like the inflatable Venus bird-like drone to enter what is termed "Phase I" of study. Five other projects already in this phase, have now been officially moved on to "Phase II".

For reference, "Phase I" projects will each receive $175,000 for a nine-month study, while "Phase II" fellows will receive $600,000 each for study over a two-year period.

“NASA’s mission to explore the universe requires new technologies and new ways of doing things,” explained Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Studying these creative ideas is the first step to turn science fiction into science fact.”

The bird-like drone isn't the only planned drone for Venus

"Phase I" projects for this intake are quite diverse and include a novel design for a crewed spacecraft that can provide protection from radiation on long journeys than conventional crew modules, a concept for a completely silent electric airplane.

But, by far, the most interesting concept comes from Javid Bayandor and his team for the Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration, BREEZE for short. 

The "Phase I" study for BREEZE will look into developing the key mission objectives for the drone, as well as, iron out the thrust capabilities, stability and flight dynamics, and designs for the inflatable elements of the drone.

All of these will be investigated with an eye on making a highly-efficient flyer for the Venusian atmosphere. It will differ dramatically from other concepts that tend to involve the use of lighter-than-air atmospheric balloons or low-weight lift craft based on solar-powered flyers.

BREEZE, on the other hand, will be something of a hybrid between these two main types of craft.

BREEZE isn't the only proposal for a Venus-destined drone. Another comes from  Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her concept would see a large weather balloon parachute into Venus' atmosphere to capture gas and clouds for analysis.

These samples would then be brought to Earth, where scientists could look for signs of life in Venus’ atmosphere. Believe it or not, Venus' atmosphere is considered one of the few potential places it could survive on the otherwise hot, high-pressure planet.

“As in years past, our new group of NIAC fellows showcases the creativity and vision of the space community at large,” said Michael LaPointe, acting program executive for the NIAC program at NASA Headquarters.

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