It is hoped that the robotic balloon design will bring new opportunities for extraterrestrial exploration
NASA has announced two successful test flights of its robotic balloon that could one day pave the way for new exploration and discovery missions to Venus.
Undertaken by NASA’s Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the test flights were conducted over the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and demonstrated the balloon’s durability, as well as the agency’s ability to control the altitude and the movement of the balloon.
Given the high temperatures and noxious gases on the surface of Venus, exploration missions to the planet have been limited. However, autonomous robotics offers a new possibility to send missions to the inhospitable planet, and NASA seems convinced that its robotic balloon could be the answer.
The 40ft balloon would work alongside a Venus orbiter, the latter circling the planet above the atmosphere to store readings on the planet and act as a communications relay, while the former would move into the atmosphere itself for exploration on the planet.
A smaller prototype was used for test flights. JPL collaborated with Near Space for the trial, with Near Space deploying its aerospace inflatable structure design for the final balloon shape. The design features an inner balloon and an outer balloon, with helium pumped in to expand or contract the balloon to match its altitude.
In these tests, the robotic balloon flew 4,000 feet above the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, which was selected for its temperature and atmospheric density that resembles the experience at 180,000 feet above Venus.
“We are extremely pleased with the performance of the prototype,” said Jacob Izraelevitz, robotics technologist at JPL. “It was launched, demonstrated maneuvers at controlled altitude and was recovered in good condition after both flights.”
“We have recorded a mountain of data from these flights and look forward to using it to improve our simulation models before exploring our sister planet,” he added.
Ultimately, the team aims to launch the balloon into Venus’ atmosphere for 100 days, circling the planet from east to west while collecting data on a wide range of phenomena; from the tremors of Venus to the composition of the clouds.