Science & Technology

Why Venus Is So Hard to Visit (And How We'll Do It Anyway)

It's gotta be rough being Venus. It's the planet that has the most in common with the Earth, and it's right next door, but it never seems to get the same kind of attention as the Moon, Mars, or even Jupiter. Just because it's so hot it melts lead, as pressurized as our deepest oceans, and 100 percent full of poison, does that mean we can't stop by to say "hi" every once in a while? Thanks to NASA scientists at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, we might be able to stop by to borrow a cup of sugar sooner than we thought (that sugar is definitely full of poison gas, though).

NASA's GEER test center allows for testing in conditions similar to Venus.

It's Not the Journey, It's the Destination

There's something very appealing about Venus. It's about the same mass as Earth, so gravity is about the same, and it's the closest planet to the Earth. That's the "pro" side. On the "con" side, there's the fact that it's 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius), its atmosphere is incredibly dense, and its winds reach speeds of 186 mph (300 km/h). Even for a robot, that's not exactly a relaxing day trip.

There have been a few attempts at landing a craft on the planet, and all of them were generally about as successful as you might expect. The USSR's Venera program was wholly devoted to Venus, and the sturdiest of those probes survived on the surface for a record-breaking two hours. NASA sent a few probes as well, but only succeeded in transmitting from the surface only once — and even then, the probe broke down in less than an hour. (By contrast, the Curiosity rover on Mars is going strong after more than five years). We've sent a few other probes Venus's way, but not many that breached the atmosphere. Most stick to the cold, dead vacuum of space. It's a whole lot safer.

Venera-13 Venus landing in 1982.

Cutting Through the Clouds

One team of NASA researchers is hard at work coming up with a probe that might be able to outlast a long lunch. At the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, electrical engineer Phil Neudeck has been hard at work creating computer chips that can survive the extreme environment. What's more, the team has been remarkably successful, with time-keeping devices that keep ticking in the facility's extreme-environments rig set to Venus's incredible temperature and pressure combination. "We don't have the world's fastest chips," Neudeck told Science Magazine. "We don't have the world's most complex chips. But in terms of Venus environment durability—that's what we got."

Waves on Venus

Making the Chips That Can Survive Venus

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 12, 2018

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