Venus is our nearest neighbor, and although the surface is an unimaginable hellscape, 50 kilometers up, the weather's downright pleasant, even if the air isn't very breathable. But before we ship off colonists to live in a cloud city, there's a lot we need to learn about the Venusian skies.
That's why Northrop Grumman has been exploring the possibility of an inflatable, solar-powered plane it calls the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverability Platform (VAMP). This lighter-than-air flier would float like a feather through Venus's atmosphere, gathering scientific data and testing an entirely new type of aviation. The project hit a milestone last Friday, when Northrop announced it had just formed an advisory board to pin down the key scientific goals and capabilities of such a mission.
That board of experts will no doubt play a significant role in the company's bid to make VAMP a NASA New Frontiers mission, which would turn the science fictional concept craft into a reality by the early 2020s.
Mars is always first in our minds when we think about space colonies, but in recent years, scientists, engineers and futurists have been revisiting the age-old idea of living on Venus.
Sure, we now know that the Venusian surface isn't a lush tropical paradise at all, but rather a broiling acid bath that would kill us a dozen different ways, melting, crushing and dissolving our carbon-and-water bodies. But high above the sulfurous thunderclouds, Venus's atmosphere becomes more Earth-like than any other extraterrestrial locale we know of. Temperatures 50 kilometers up are cool enough for liquid water to form, and there's plenty of sunlight, carbon dioxide and nitrogen to nourish plants.
What's more, this Earthly atmosphere floats naturally atop the toxic one that tortures the Venusian surface, raising the intriguing possibility that a human colony could be built to float in Venus's thin but potentially habitable veneer.
In many ways, an inflatable recon vehicle is the natural technological precursor to the establishment of a floating base in Venusian skies. VAMP, a lightweight vehicle with a 55-meter wingspan designed to be inflated and deployed on orbit, would cruise through the layer of atmosphere 52 to 68 kilometers above the surface, gathering scientific data for up to a year. While solar powered propellers would maneuver the craft, VAMP would expend little effort to stay afloat, buoyed like a leaf on the wind.
"VAMP's primary science goal would be to gather atmospheric measurements of Venus, such as radiative, dynamical and chemical processes in the atmosphere and the cloud layers," a company spokesperson for Northrop told me in an email. "It could also gather surface measurements and measurements of the surface's interaction with the atmosphere."
Such information would go a long way toward helping researchers explain the Earth-like disposition of Venus's upper atmosphere. Understanding how Venus's prodigious cloud layers formed could also help illuminate Earth's climate, offering a cautionary illustration of runaway greenhouse effects.
What's more, as the first incarnation of Northrop's Lifting Entry/Atmospheric Flight (LEAF) family of vehicles, VAMP will be an opportunity to tackle some of the key design challenges facing extraterrestrial atmospheric rovers. Eventually, the craft may serve as a template for similar crafts that would cruise the skies of Mars, Titan and other exotic locales.
"It is known that Venus's cloud layer contains sulfuric acid droplets that could corrode all of VAMP's surfaces if we did not design them to be resistant," the spokesperson said. "Other challenges we are addressing in our design are the entry heating and wind turbulence that is expected to exist on Venus."
We're no longer starry eyed about life on Venus, but if VAMP succeeds, a future where Venusian skyfarers sail high above the surface in floating, solar powered crafts becomes a little less crazy. Certainly no more crazy than packing our DNA into bacteria and printing our descendants on Mars.