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Inflatable plane could fly over Venus

Kulvinder Singh, News reporter
May 15, 2015, 17:30 UTC

Sen—An inflatable, propeller-powered aircraft could one day cruise through the dense atmosphere of Venus. The team behind the proposal—working for aerospace firms Northrop Grumman and L'Garde—are competing for a one billion-dollar NASA prize for Solar System exploration missions. If they are successful, the mission could launch as early as 2021.

With wings, solar-powered propellers and an inflatable interior, the Venus Atmospheric Manouverable Platform (VAMP) would be a cross between a military drone and an airship. It would carry scientific instruments designed to study Venus and its atmopsphere.

Though still at the proposal stage, the project team have been refining their design for several years. The hope is that VAMP will be able to compete for NASA's New Frontiers program—the agency's fourth one—when the competition opens in 2016. The first competition saw the launch of the New Horizons probe in 2006, which is currently nearing the end of its journey to Pluto.

An aircraft would be a very easy way of exploring Venus. Nitrogen—which comprises 71 per cent of Earth's air—is a buoyant, lifting gas in the thick, carbon dioxide atmosphere of Venus. In other words it behaves like helium does on Earth. So nitrogen could be an ideal gas for VAMP to use.  

The VAMP plane would cruise at two altitudes: 70 km with propellers providing much of the lift, then at 55 km with propellers off, with the craft able to float by itself. It could stay aloft like this for many months, or years.

Landing is out of the question though. The planet's atmospheric pressure at the surface is a crushing 92 times that of Earth. Its surface temperature is 462°C. The Soviet-built Venera probes of the 1960s lasted less than an hour in this harsh environment before malfunctioning.

Cruising through the atmosphere at altitude would allow for a longer mission life. But it still would not be without its challenges. Northrop Grumman's spokesperson for the VAMP mission, Sally Koris, told Sen: “It's known that Venus’s cloud layer contains sulphuric acid droplets that could corrode all of VAMP’s surfaces if we didn't design them to be resistant. Other challenges we're addressing are the [atmospheric] entry heating and wind turbulence expected on Venus.”  

The team will use computer simulations and prototype testing to ensure that the final design could cope with the extremely harsh environmental conditions of Venus.

Though VAMP itself is not being built yet, the team are investigating potential materials and construction techniques. Koris told Sen: “The skin is made from thin, multilayer laminate (under development) that can be folded to fit into the launch vehicle fairing, unfold, inflate,and be resistant to Venus's cloud environment. Leading edges are covered with a thermal protection material.” 

There is great interest from scientists in the project as it provides a unique platform from which to study the atmosphere of Venus. Koris told Sen this interest has been helped by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission, which has collected seven years of high-quality data. She said: “The Venus Express mission showed that Venus is a complex and fascinating place and warrants an in-depth, in-situ investigation.”