JPL's Venus Aerial Robotic Balloon Prototype Aces Test Flights
by Agency Writers
Pasadena CA (JPL) Oct 11, 2022
A scaled-down version of the aerobot that could one day take to the Venusian skies successfully completed two Nevada test flights, marking a milestone for the project.
The intense pressure, heat, and corrosive gases of Venus' surface are enough to disable even the most robust spacecraft in a matter of hours. But a few dozen miles overhead, the thick atmosphere is far more hospitable to robotic exploration.
One concept envisions pairing a balloon with a Venus orbiter, the two working in tandem to study Earth's sister planet. While the orbiter would remain far above the atmosphere, taking science measurements and serving as a communication relay, an aerial robotic balloon, or aerobot, about 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter would travel into it.
To test this concept, a team of scientists and engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the Near Space Corporation in Tillamook, Oregon, recently carried out two successful flights of a prototype balloon that's about a third of that size.
The shimmering silver balloon ascended more than 4,000 feet (1 kilometer) over Nevada's Black Rock Desert to a region of Earth's atmosphere that approximates the temperature and density the aerobot would experience about 180,000 feet (55 kilometers) above Venus. Coordinated by Near Space, these tests represent a milestone in proving the concept's suitability for accessing a region of Venus' atmosphere too low for orbiters to reach, but where a balloon mission could operate for weeks or even months.
"We're extremely happy with the performance of the prototype. It was launched, demonstrated controlled-altitude maneuvers, and was recovered in good condition after both flights," said robotics technologist Jacob Izraelevitz, who leads the balloon development as the JPL principal investigator of the flight tests. "We've recorded a mountain of data from these flights and are looking forward to using it to improve our simulation models before exploring our sister planet."
The only balloon-borne exploration of Venus' atmosphere to date was a part of the twin Soviet Vega 1 and 2 missions that arrived at the planet in 1985. The two balloons (which were about 11.5 feet, or 3.6 meters, in diameter when filled with helium) lasted a little over 46 hours before their instruments' batteries ran out. Their short time in the Venusian atmosphere provided a tantalizing hint of the science that could be achieved by a larger, longer-duration balloon platform floating within the planet's atmosphere.
'Roving' the Skies
Much like a Mars rover is commanded to drive to an interesting rock or other feature, the aerobot can be directed to raise and lower its altitude - something the Vega balloons couldn't do - to conduct science between about 171,000 and 203,000 feet (52 and 62 kilometers) within Venus' atmosphere.
The prototype balloon was fabricated using Near Space's techniques for performance aerospace inflatables. Designed as a "balloon within a balloon," it has a rigid inner reservoir filled with helium under high pressure and an encapsulating outer helium balloon that can expand and contract. To increase altitude, helium vents from the inner reservoir into the outer balloon, which expands to give the aerobot additional buoyancy. When it's time to reduce altitude, helium is pumped back into the reservoir, causing the outer balloon to shrink and decrease the aerobot's buoyancy.
"The success of these test flights is a huge deal for us: We've successfully demonstrated the technology we'll need for investigating the clouds of Venus," said Paul Byrne, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis and aerobot science collaborator. "These tests form the foundation for how we can achieve long-term robotic exploration high above Venus' hellish surface."
No Picnic in the Clouds
"The materials being used for Venus survivability are challenging to fabricate with, and the robustness of handling we've demonstrated in the Nevada launch and recovery gives us confidence for balloon's reliability on Venus," said co-investigator Tim Lachenmeier, chief executive officer of Near Space.
While the recent Nevada tests were a milestone for a future concept designed with Venus in mind, the researchers say the technology could also be used by high-altitude science balloons that need to control their altitude in Earth's skies.
Coronal mass ejection hits Solar Orbiter before Venus flyby
Paris (ESA) Sep 06, 2022
In the early hours of Sunday, 4 September, Solar Orbiter flew by Venus for a gravity-assist manoeuvre that alters the spacecraft's orbit, getting it even closer to the Sun. As if trying to get the orbiter's attention as it cosied up to another body in the Solar System, the Sun flung an enormous 'coronal mass ejection' straight at the spacecraft and planet just two days before their closest approach - and the data are revealing. On 30 Aug, a large coronal mass ejection shot from the Sun in the dire ... read more
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