Science & Technology

Should We Send People on a Mission to Venus?

Venus is hot. How hot is it? It's so hot it will melt your face off — and it'll destroy an unprotected spacecraft quickly, too. The average temperature is an oven-like 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius) at the surface, which is hot enough to melt lead. The shielded Soviet Venera landers that braved these conditions in the 1970s and 1980s typically lasted at most a few hours. But NASA — which loves exploring difficult places — still has several weird ideas to bring spacecraft to Venus. Some will float above the clouds, while others will roam the surface using simple parts.

Wreaking HAVOC

NASA's most famous out-there plan for Venus is a human mission called HAVOC (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept), which would have humans live above the clouds of Venus in airships. The 2015 study even suggested that humans should go to Venus before Mars, which is a black sheep idea in the space community. After all, NASA sends robotic spacecraft to Mars several times a decade — in fact, the InSight lander is on the way right now for a November landing.

But the reasoning for going to Venus is sound, the HAVOC concept authors argued in a paper on NASA's technical reports server. "The mission requires less time to complete than a crewed Mars mission, and the environment at 50 km [altitude] is relatively benign, with similar pressure, density, gravity, and radiation protection to the surface of Earth," they said.

The ultimate goal is a 30-day crewed mission in the atmosphere, but like Mordor, one does not simply go to Venus. There are a lot of challenges that need to be addressed first — for example, how do you protect the spacecraft from clouds full of corrosive sulphuric acid? There's also the not-so-small matter of funding. Right now, NASA's human space budget is all tied up in the International Space Station, although the space station's funding may stop in 2025. However, the Trump administration doesn't want to go to Venus or Mars first; instead, they argue the moon is better because it lets you test out space tech closer to home.

Landsailing the Surface

But don't give up hope for Venus yet. NASA enjoys taking a library of ideas from its scientists and then drawing on them for future missions — whether it's in 10 years or 50. A key example is the NASA Advanced Innovation Concepts program, which gives a little bit of funding every year to scientists playing with cool ideas. Venus is among the spots these people dream of visiting.

How about taking advantage of the strong winds on Venus? In 2014, a NIAC-funded team led by NASA's Geoffrey Landis suggested a landsailing rover, complete with electronics designed to survive inside of red-hot jet engines. The team added that the landsailer would meet "ideal terrain" on Venus. "The surface of Venus actually does us a favor: from the views of Venus taken by the Russian Venera probes, the surface of Venus can be seen to have landscapes of flat, even terrain stretching to the horizon, with rocks at only centimeter scale." (Bonus: Public engagement in the mission will be easy, the team said, because the reaction to landsailing will be "how cool is that?")

Venus Past and Future

Landis is famous in the space community for his ideas about Venus. He's also proposed solar-powered airplanes and even floating cities for humans. So it's clear that his idea for a landsailing rover would only be one piece of a future network of Venusian spacecraft.

"There's been a lot of people who have been proposing space colonies, such as colonies that are in free space, separate from any planet," Landis told Universe Today in 2008. "And I said, well, if you're thinking that far into the future, why don't we think of some more groundbreaking, or perhaps we should say atmosphere-breaking possibilities."

Let's also not forget the real-life Venus spacecraft that have visited the planet, such as the former Soviet Union's Venera series, the NASA Magellan spacecraft, and Europe's Venus Express. And if you want to check out the Venus science going on right now, space agencies around the world are on the case. Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft is in orbit as we speak, and Europe's BepiColombo mission (which launches in October) will make two flybys of Venus on its way to Mercury.

And in the 2020s, Russia and the United States may return to Venus — but this time, together. The two countries are studying a lander/orbiter concept called Venera-D. The goal of the mission is to better understand the evolution of Venus — and rocky planets in general, such as Earth.

Delve into the breathtaking discoveries of the Magellan mission in "Venus Revealed: A New Look Below The Clouds Of Our Mysterious Twin Planet" by David Harry Grinspoon. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Crash Course Astronomy: Venus

Written by Elizabeth Howell May 24, 2018

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