Balloons on Venus? NASA experts propose 'aerobots' to hunt for volcanoes

Meet the aerobots.
Sade Agard
How will an erupting volcano be captured on Venus?
How will an erupting volcano be captured on Venus?


Interest in the exploration of Venus has kicked up a notch lately, especially after the discovery of active volcanism on the planet just last week, thanks to a recent analysis of 30-year-old data of data by NASA's Magellan space probe. 

Now, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have proposed the employment of autonomous balloons, called aerobots, to monitor explosive volcanic activity on Venus, according to a new study published in the journal Acta Astronautica. 

According to scientists, the development holds significant promise for carrying out urgently needed scientific examinations of Venus' atmosphere and geological events, as proven by several recent Earth-based experiments.

How will space balloons find Venus' volcanoes?

According to the paper, the network of aerobots will be able to autonomously navigate Venus' complex wind field on Venus, which has different directional winds at differing speeds. 

Federico Rossi and colleagues claim that the ability to exploit buoyancy control and knowledge of wind patterns for accurate guidance of aerial platforms has been effectively demonstrated on Earth for telecommunication applications. Similar techniques have proven successful in controlling vertically profiling floats in ocean currents. 

Balloons on Venus? NASA experts propose 'aerobots' to hunt for volcanoes
Conceptual image of balloon mission using 3 balloons with an orbiter.

Additionally, they explain that a balloon might communicate directly with another balloon in the network if it notices an intriguing pressure shift (i.e., brought on by an erupting volcano) but cannot travel there due to its local wind conditions.

The balloon with more favorable wind conditions would raise or lower itself towards the point of interest.

From there, photographs of a volcanic eruption site (within 50 kilometers of horizontal distance) might be taken over many visits, allowing for the tracking of the site's appearance and evolution. 

It may also drop equipment into the eruption plume for sampling. 

Even with recent discoveries in mind, no volcanic eruptions have been observed directly on Venus so far. The new study, therefore, contends that repeat close-up observations of a single ongoing or a volcanic eruption that has just terminated could provide unprecedented details about Venus' underlying geology and volcanism.

The team also states the method can produce up to 63 percent more close-up observations of volcanic events than passive drifters and a 16 percent improvement compared to ground-in-the-loop guidance.

They emphasized that future Venus missions could yield substantially more scientific data owing to the autonomy of balloon platforms. 

But now- back down to Earth- the proposed advancement at least inspires next-generation space spots without waiting for a direct command from humans in the loop. After all, most intriguing events are short-lived and call for quick responses- we could do without the lag. 

The full study was published in the journal Acta Astronautica on March 7 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Altitude-controlled balloons hold great promise for performing high-priority scientific investigations of Venus’s atmosphere and geological phenomena, including tectonic and volcanic activity, as demonstrated by a number of recent Earth-based experiments.

In this paper, we explore a concept of operations where multiple autonomous, altitude-controlled balloons monitor explosive volcanic activity on Venus through infrasound microbarometers, and autonomously navigate the uncertain wind field to perform follow-on observations of detected events of interest. We propose a novel autonomous guidance technique for altitude-controlled balloons in Venus’s uncertain wind field, and show the approach can result in an increase of up to 63% in the number of close-up observations of volcanic events compared to passive drifters, and a 16% increase compared to ground-in-the-loop guidance. The results are robust to uncertainty in the wind field, and hold across large changes in the frequency of explosive volcanic events, sensitivity of the microbarometer detectors, and numbers of aerial platforms.

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