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This inflatable plane could explore the clouds of Venus

The Verge logo The Verge 5/26/2015 Russell Brandom
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Northrop Grumman has a new idea for exploring Venus. Announced earlier this month, the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverability Platform (or VAMP) would let NASA skim Venus's upper atmosphere with an inflatable aircraft, deployed from space.

Since the craft is self-inflated, it would be light enough to stay aloft with little to no energy, but still be maneuverable enough to navigate Venus's significant atmospheric winds and durable enough to withstand the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere. The VAMP is designed for NASA's New Frontiers program, which looks for innovative approaches to space exploration. If NASA likes the craft enough to fund it, the VAMP could be exploring the clouds of Venus in just ten years.

Many in the space industry are already seeing Venus as a more practical alternative to Mars exploration. The planet is typically closer than Mars, thanks to a more convenient orbital cycle, making exploratory missions significantly simpler. The surface of the planet is uninhabitable, hot and dense enough to melt lead, but a settlement floating in Venus's clouds would find temperatures, pressures, and radiation levels remarkably similar to Earth.

A plane built for the clouds of Venus

The most comprehensive mission to Venus came in 2005, when the European Space Agency launched a scientific probe called the Venus Express. At the end of last year, scientists at NASA's Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate proposed solar-powered blimps as a way for humans to establish permanent settlements in the Venusian clouds. The system was called the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept, or HAVOC for short.

"The vast majority of people, when they hear the idea of going to Venus and exploring, think of the surface, where it’s hot enough to melt lead and the pressure is the same as if you were almost a mile underneath the ocean," HAVOC engineer Chris Jones told IEEE in December. "I think that not many people have gone and looked at the relatively much more hospitable atmosphere and how you might tackle operating there for a while."

Northrop Grumman's proposed craft would be more like the Venus Express than HAVOC, gathering scientific measurements rather than hosting live humans. But the VAMP would reach deeper into Venus's atmosphere than the Express did, gathering more information and providing crucial practical experience in how to outfit a craft to survive in Venus's unique atmosphere. Still, without NASA support, the VAMP is still only a concept, and we won't know whether agency wants to fund the project until it announces the New Frontiers mission next year.

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