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Space

NASA Study Proposes Airships, Cloud Cities For Venus Exploration 200

An anonymous reader writes: IEEE Spectrum reports on a study out of NASA exploring the idea that manned missions to Venus are possible if astronauts deploy and live in airships once they arrive. Since the atmospheric pressure at the surface is 92 times that of Earth, and the surface temperate is over 450 degrees C, the probes we've sent to Venus haven't lasted long. The Venera 8 probe sent back data for only 50 minutes after landing. Soviet missions in 1985 were able to get much more data — 46 hours worth — by suspending their probes from balloons. The new study refines that concept: "At 50 kilometers above its surface, Venus offers one atmosphere of pressure and only slightly lower gravity than Earth. Mars, in comparison, has a "sea level" atmospheric pressure of less than a hundredth of Earth's, and gravity just over a third Earth normal. The temperature at 50 km on Venus is around 75 C, which is a mere 17 degrees hotter than the highest temperature recorded on Earth.

The defining feature of these missions is the vehicle that will be doing the atmospheric exploring: a helium-filled, solar-powered airship. The robotic version would be 31 meters long (about half the size of the Goodyear blimp), while the crewed version would be nearly 130 meters long, or twice the size of a Boeing 747. The top of the airship would be covered with more than 1,000 square meters of solar panels, with a gondola slung underneath for instruments and, in the crewed version, a small habitat and the ascent vehicle that the astronauts would use to return to Venus's orbit, and home."
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NASA Study Proposes Airships, Cloud Cities For Venus Exploration

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  • by ledow ( 319597 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @11:25AM (#48617103) Homepage

    As with all space missions:

    Fabulous.

    Let's do it.

    Start planning now.

    Go, go go.

    When will it happen?

    I have a feeling in 50 years time this will be dragged out of the archives and the same idea posited once more.

    • by TWX ( 665546 )
      Honestly I don't think that this is viable, mainly because the airship is a pretty damn big single point of failure without an option to fail-safe, and if astronauts can't roam the surface of the planet then there's not a lot of benefit to sending humans as they'll effectively be cooped up inside of the craft the same as if they're traversing open space.

      This isn't Empire Strikes Back, some glorious cloud-city.
      • mainly because the airship is a pretty damn big single point of failure

        How so? I assume the envelope would be divided into separate cells and the pressures and temperatures involved mean that the actual pressure difference between inside and outside the envelope is basically nill. In other words, if something springs a leak you'll have quit a bit of time to get it repaired, your lifting gas will escape at the rate of diffusion.

        they'll effectively be cooped up inside of the craft the same as if they're traversing open space.

        Except the craft can be much, much more capable because the environment is much friendlier to human life than open space. Given enough power, you

        • by TWX ( 665546 )
          Okay, a fundamental question then... What's the mission?

          I don't see a mission for humans hovering over Venus. This isn't like a possible geology excavation on Mars where it might actually be easier if humans are on-site to direct or operate machines for specific applications.

          I believe that humans should go explore space, but I also believe that with only finite resources and commitment to doing it, the effort should be focused on places where humans can actually be boots-on-the-ground to rove, to ex
          • Okay, a fundamental question then... What's the mission?

            I don't see a mission for humans hovering over Venus. This isn't like a possible geology excavation on Mars where it might actually be easier if humans are on-site to direct or operate machines for specific applications.

            I believe that humans should go explore space, but I also believe that with only finite resources and commitment to doing it, the effort should be focused on places where humans can actually be boots-on-the-ground to rove, to explore.

            If it's floating above the clouds, it would be the ideal solar observation post. Gravity almost like earth, temperature tolerable.

            As to why to do it, think of our increased dependence on communications networks. Would be nice to have a better understanding and earlier predictability of solar events that can take the networks down.

            • by itzly ( 3699663 )

              Would be nice to have a better understanding and earlier predictability of solar events that can take the networks down.

              We already have satellites looking at the Sun. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S... [wikipedia.org]

            • If it's floating above the clouds, it would be the ideal solar observation post. Gravity almost like earth, temperature tolerable.

              Other than costing 10 million times as much, how would that differ from putting a telescope on a high altitude balloon in the earth's stratosphere?

            • Not nearly as good an observation post as it would have in orbit. And as long as we're doing orbital observations there's not much reason to involve a planet at all, unless it's our own.

              Not to mention that if you're studying something hundreds of millions of miles away from your sensors, there's not much point in having people standing next to the sensors unless they need to be repaired or modified. You could just as easily be sitting on Earth and have the information forwarded to you, it's not like you c

          • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @12:15PM (#48617575) Homepage

            Okay, a fundamental question then... What's the mission?

            http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/11/29/forget-asteroidssend-a-manned-flyby-mission-to-venus/ [scientificamerican.com]

            A circumnavigation of Venus would test our ability to function in deep space, to enter a planet's gravitational influence, to create robust shielding for the higher radiation at Venus's relatively close proximity to the sun, to devise zero-g strategies for long-duration flights -- all of which would bolster us for an even longer journey to Mars. Besides, for a long-duration mission, we might not want to commit our astronauts to landing on Mars only to find out that they could not walk, their musculature had so degenerated upon arrival. In contrast, the crew of a long Venus round-trip would land not on a faraway planet but back on Earth, where medical attention is readily available if needed.

            • by itzly ( 3699663 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @12:18PM (#48617615)
              In short: it's pointless, but it provides valuable practice for future, equally pointless, missions.
              • by creimer ( 824291 )
                Pointless like Christopher Columbus sailing accross the Atlantic Ocean to find an alternative route to India and discovering America by accident in 1492? After all, everyone believed at that time believed the world was flat and ships would fall off into the void.
                • by itzly ( 3699663 )
                  Finding a shorter route to India wasn't a pointless mission. And we know enough about the solar system that we can be reasonably certain that we don't accidentally bump into a luscious planet on our way to Mars or Venus.
                • No, no one at the time believed that the Earth was flat... Columbus was an idiot who thought that the distance between Western Europe and Eastern Asia was a lot smaller than people had thought/calculated.

                  • by creimer ( 824291 )
                    Everything I was taught about Christopher Columbus was wrong [wikipedia.org]! Damn public school education!!
                    • Everything I was taught about Christopher Columbus was wrong [wikipedia.org]! Damn public school education!!

                      I attended public school, and remember learning in 5th grade that Eratosthenes of Alexandria accurately calculated the radius of the earth around 200 BC. In addition to changing shadow heights as you move from south to north, the curve of the earth is visible against the moon during a lunar eclipse. Both the Ancient Greeks and the Romans were well aware that the earth was a spheroid, and knew the approximate radius.

                      Either the school you attended was exceptionally bad, or you spent a lot of time not paying

                    • I wouldn't blame him. Protestant and anti-religious propaganda pushed these false stories around.

                    • by creimer ( 824291 )

                      Either the school you attended was exceptionally bad, or you spent a lot of time not paying attention.

                      I was misdiagnosed as being mentally retarded. Never mind that I consistently blew out the annual examinations on the genius side (i.e., these were "statistical flukes," as not the threaten the 3X funding I represented for the special ed classes). I graduated from the eight grade with fifth grade math/writing skills and a college-level reading comprehension. After skipping high school and teaching myself at home, I got an associate degree in general ed at the community college. A decade later I went back to

                  • Not exactly. Even Columbus had a fair idea of the diameter of the planet - where he got it wrong was estimating the width of Eurasia at almost double the actual value, which put the east coast roughly where he encountered the Americas. Considering that he made the estimates based on the log books of explorers who crossed extremely rough terrain and couldn't measure longitude*, being off by a factor of two is hardly a symptom of idiocy. Unless you have reason to believe that a substantially more accurate

            • by TWX ( 665546 )
              I'm sorry, how is sending humans to Venus, already a long flight, to experience conditions significantly different than those on Mars, going to help us more than say, sending a crew up to ISS for eight months, then transferring them to a craft to send them to the moon, to have them live on the moon for a few days or weeks, to then send them back to the station for eight months, to then send them back to earth?

              We could send a rescue mission straight from Earth to the moon a hell of a lot faster than we co
              • by creimer ( 824291 )
                Another proposal was to use Venus as a slingshot to Mars [wikipedia.org] if the launch window for a direct Mars flight was ever missed. I find it fascinating that people always think of space flight as being outward (i.e., towards the outer planets) while ignoring Earth's sister world next door.
                • If there's such a tendency I suspect it's mainly because everything closer to the sun is extremely hostile to human life, and even human artifacts. Cold is easy to overcome, heat is a far more challenging problem. But I think it's probably mostly that you're conflating "outward = away from Earth" with "outward = away from Sun". Who hasn't heard of the various Venus probes?

              • We could also set up telescopes on the far side of the moon, which would have immense scientific value (especially in the IR spectrum region).
                • by creimer ( 824291 )
                  I saw one proposal of putting a manned space station in orbit on the far side of the moon and/or at L2 point (i.e., stable orbit outside lunar not facing the sun).
                  • I'd support it (big surprise, eh?). I think some kind of manned Lagrange mission is important, since the experience would be needed e.g. to service the James Webb space telescope or visit a captured asteroid.
            • A circumnavigation of Venus would test our ability to function in deep space, to enter a planet's gravitational influence, to create robust shielding for the higher radiation at Venus's relatively close proximity to the sun, to devise zero-g strategies for long-duration flights -- all of which would bolster us for an even longer journey to Mars.

              We've already done most of those things. Function in deep space? We've sent many successful probes all over the place, adding a human payload doesn't change the phys

              • by creimer ( 824291 )

                Create robust shielding? We need to figure that one out before leaving the Earth-Moon system, and test it on a probe before committing people to it.

                Which was why the Orion space capsule completed a 3,600-mile orbit to fly through the Van Allen radiation belt, as well as simulate a 20,000 MPH atmospheric return entry. With the exception of the Apollo missions, most manned flights were restricted to Low Earth Orbit.

          • by geekoid ( 135745 )

            "Okay, a fundamental question then... What's the mission? "
            Develop technologies the make life here better? learn more about human biology beyond earth. Make another step to spreading our species, Conduct better tests on captures particle. Control descent to the planet with sensors. Look for life in the upper atmosphere.

          • by Ranbot ( 2648297 )

            Okay, a fundamental question then... What's the mission?
             

            To establish Cloud City...preferably before Blly Dee Williams passes away.

          • by Rei ( 128717 )

            I'll begin by stating that I I don't support such a mission, as I prefer robotic exploration. But this proposal isn't as extreme as it may sound - it's probably a heck of a lot easier than landing on a planet and taking off. It's only 640 m/s from earth escape to Venus (3/5ths that of Mars). Transit time is less and launch windows a lot more frequent. Venus offers very easy aerocapture. You don't have to deal with the randomness of the surface - your "landing" is a lot more forgiving. Your habitat is probab

      • That single point of failure isn't as bad as you might think, because the pressure could be the same on the inside and outside. Cloud-top Venusians wouldn't even need pressurized suits, just breathable air...and protection from the sulfuric acid. And some way to deal with the 200+ mile per hour winds, perhaps by sort of riding them around the planet. I imagine many unmanned missions would precede a manned one, to set up some infrastructure (power generation, oxygen extraction, food crops, etc.) and provi

      • As a space systems engineer, I would agree. There isn't much benefit to putting humans in the Venusian clouds. It adds weight and risk to the mission. They can just as well stay in orbit, controlling a robotic exploration blimp.

        • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

          I hate to bring politics into a science discussion, but unfortunately politics is what determines funding. And politics is what put humans on the moon.

          Yes, putting humans anywhere in space (or anywhere hostile to biological habitation) is basically a super-expensive camping trip. That never stopped us in the past from building capsules that can take humans to the bottom of the oceans or hurtling across the skies or stationed at the south pole and other places where robots could do the job just as well or

      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        How to you think you get to glorious cloud cities?
        Through intermediary steps, that's how.*

        *Alternative answer: Fly the Millennium Falcon**. I see what you were going to do there

        ** What the hell is an Aluminum Falcon!

    • by RingDev ( 879105 )

      75 C = 167 F.

      "17 degrees" in this case means a 30 degree F jump. And while 138 F is survivable for short durations with a lot of hydration, 167 F would not be anything to attempt to live in.

      We're not talking about an air ship where you can take a leisurely stroll on the pool deck admiring the Venetian sunset. We're talking about a space ship that is suspended in a convection stove.

      -Rick

      • by Jesrad ( 716567 )

        Meat starts cooking at around 60C.

      • by Ihlosi ( 895663 )
        We're not talking about an air ship where you can take a leisurely stroll on the pool deck admiring the Venetian sunset. We're talking about a space ship that is suspended in a convection stove.

        Or a sauna. On the plus side, you get plenty of solar power to run your AC with.

    • Not likely. One of the large costs with any of these missions is launch. With SpaceX pushing re-usable systems, and about to drop their prices a great deal in about 3 years, it will make missions like this possible.
      In addition, keep in mind that Musk is now looking at building a satellite factory. Once he starts that, he will be after all sat manufacturing to make them cheap. While this is an airship, the guts will be satellite based.
      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        They talk about lowering their price, but it's based on how prices drop in other areas' something we have learned that is foolish to do when it come to space travel.

    • "and the ascent vehicle that the astronauts would use to return to Venus's orbit, and home."

      The summary establishes that the gravity is about Earth gravity. The "ascent vehicle" can't be something small and simple like the stories say was used to get the astronauts off the moon. With a 1G gravity well we would be talking about a large launch vehicle here. And, unless NASA has been wasting our tax dollars just for show then that also implies that it would need all of the launch pad accessories that we u

  • Since the atmospheric pressure at the surface is 92 times that of Earth, and the surface temperate is over 450 degrees C, the probes we've sent to Venus haven't lasted long. The Venera 8 probe sent back data for only 50 minutes after landing.

    What would it take to create a probe that could survive these conditions and send back data indefinitely? Is it even currently possible to engineer electronics that can either operate at those temperatures or be insulated and cooled sustainably? If you had infinite funding and the best engineers in the world, how would you even begin to address this?

  • It's like some sort of Jules Verne, 19th century idea of space exploration. It makes a lot of sense though. At least the unmanned mission looks like a real possibility.

  • it can be air filled (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dominux ( 731134 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @11:36AM (#48617195) Homepage

    earth atmosphere air is a lifting gas on Venus, the airship could be full of normal air, and the people live inside it, not slung under it in a gondola. The pressure inside would only be a little different to the pressure outside, so a small hole in the skin of the airship wouldn't be an explosively big problem, air would just mix with the corrosive and fairly nasty outside atmosphere. It would need fixing, but it is nothing like a hole with a vacuum outside. Venus is a fairly nice place overall, lots of solar, interesting chemicals in the atmosphere. The only problem is that the ground is too far down.

    • by Jesrad ( 716567 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @11:57AM (#48617371) Journal

      Also mind the day duration: the Venus sidereal day is 243 Earth days. That makes for a worse than polar night, solar panel-wise, and that's not even counting the permanent, thick cloud cover. There just is no point in reaching the venusian ground and its lead-melting heat. It's far better to hang in the high atmosphere, well above the sulfuric acid clouds, and loft around in the 200 mph winds, circling the planet every 4 or 5 Earth days.

    • but what's the point of sending humans to suspend them in air there? what does it lead to? What can they do that probes can not?

      • by dominux ( 731134 )

        fair point, I don't think putting humans in the Venus atmosphere is a massively good idea until it is a viable place for full time colonisation, which it could be. If we are going to colonise another planet it is better than Mars in terms of energy and resources. I think in the shorter term airship probes would be good, as well as solar powered fixed wing flyers.

    • by pavon ( 30274 )

      That said, the total payload mass that the ship could support is roughly the same whether it is inside the airship or outside in a gondola, and the more space you want to make available for use, the more mass you would have to dedicate to structure rather than payload. So it would be less cramped than a tiny capsule, but you would still need large expanses of mostly empty space to provide the needed buoyancy.

      In practice, it might be better to have a balloon filled with a less dense gas to decrease the total

    • What useful things can be harvested from the atmosphere? Are there chemicals that could be used to make plastics? Could a small habitat expand into a floating city?

      • The sulfuric acid itself might be useful. It shouldn't be too hard to split into SO3 and H2O.

        SO2 was used as a refrigerant prior to WWII, and could be produced by reducing the SO3, then used to cool the airship to temperatures more suitable for electronics/experiments/humans.

    • by invid ( 163714 )
      The NPC [amazon.com] is a science fiction story that takes place in the atmosphere of Venus (disclaimer, I wrote it). I tried to present a realistic view of how an actual colony might function there.
  • by the_skywise ( 189793 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @11:42AM (#48617237)

    Golly... where have I heard of that before...

    They could call it Columbia...

  • by itzly ( 3699663 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @11:43AM (#48617257)
    As soon as they said "manned", it was obvious that this isn't serious. There's no purpose to sending people to sit forever in a closed capsule.
    • Other than, you know, zero-delay research of atmospheric conditions on Venus.

      You know, the first steps to determining if there's even a distant shot in hell of terraforming the place in a century or three.
      • by itzly ( 3699663 )
        You are worried about a few hours of delay in a mission that will take decades ?
      • You know, the first steps to determining if there's even a distant shot in hell of terraforming the place in a century or three.

        At the moment I'm not seeing a reason why it's worth the investment. I love space and wish we were doing more but human exploration is expensive and has low ROI. What we really need to do is figure out how to commercialize space, we're not going to get very far at the current pace of a few billion here and there. Only private industry can afford to put in the trillions that would be required to really get things moving.

    • As soon as they said "manned", it was obvious that this isn't serious. There's no purpose to sending people to sit forever in a closed capsule.

      You say that, but there are plenty of mentally ill people on slashdot who would happily live in a tin can for a couple of years, and die on Mars living in a small tin hut.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @11:47AM (#48617279) Homepage

    Airships? Floating cities?

    Hell yeah!! Space exploration has needed to take a steampunk turn for a while now. We totally need more brass goggles and leather aviator jackets.

    I for one welcome our new Cloud City overlords.

  • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Wednesday December 17, 2014 @11:48AM (#48617283)
    The airship idea is a great idea. Not with astronauts (there wouldn't be much to do for them, unlike on Mars, where they could look at rock formations, dig holes and play golf), but a robotic airship would get a much closer look at Venus than any satellite.

    Plus, it would be a "first".

  • The article states that Venus gets 40% more solar irradiance than Earth and 240% more than Mars. I wonder where these numbers come from. From the inverse-square law, Venus would get about twice the solar irradiance of Earth, and about four times the irradiance of Mars ...
    • I wonder where these numbers come from.

      Different magnetic fields strengths and atmospheres (or lack thereof). The values themselves are probably empirical data from the previous unmanned probes (as opposed to theoretical calculations assuming a location just outside the magnetic field).

  • This won't happen in my lifetime.

  • By eliminating the return trip this could be far more effective and efficient. Permanent settlers would not need a return vehicle so all that energy and material could be used to take more materials and people.

    • By eliminating the return trip this could be far more effective and efficient. Permanent settlers would not need a return vehicle so all that energy and material could be used to take more materials and people.

      People like you are why the term "space nutter" exists.

      You aren't going to permanently settle anywhere in a 100m long airship, and the surface is basically uninhabitable.

      There is absolutely no point sending humans to Venus, unless as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

      • by creimer ( 824291 )

        There is absolutely no point sending humans to Venus, unless as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

        That's what they said about Australia. A penal colony at Venus might work.

  • This actually makes sense for an interesting science mission. Not sure if it makes sense for humans to go there, but loads of science can be done from above.
  • Considering that a surface mission is completely unfeasible and that they would effectively be little more than equipment operators, it seems the only benefit to a manned mission would be "less latency" in controlling the equipment vs drone style operators based here on Earth. Personally, aside from "bragging rights" for pulling off the first manned Venus Mission I do not see anything that could remotely justify the risk of life and massive financial costs a manned mission would incur.
  • I like the idea of building a gigantic monomolecular sheet at the L1 point of Venus to reflect/deflect part of the sunlight, letting Venus cool off. Below a certain temperature parts of its atmosphere start to condense, also dropping the air pressure by a significant amount. Possible terraforming in a much easier way than on Mars, hardly any high tech involved except for a sheet factory and tanks of raw material at L1.
    • A cool Venus would actually still be much harder to live on or terraform than Mars, because it has no water (in any phase).

  • Venus will never be inhabitable until we can radically alter the atmosphere. Colonizing the atmosphere is pointless. Where are you going to get raw materials? It would be far easier to hollow out an asteroid and colonize the interior than it ever would be to establish a presence on Venus.
  • All that is needed for manned exploration of the solar system is a transport spaceship, with rotating sections for gravity and nuclear propulsion.

  • I don't see why they would use helium. Hydrogen would be much easier to deal with since it can be readily extracted from the hydrogen sulfide clouds. There wouldn't be any Hindenburg's since there's no oxygen in the atmosphere to react with.

    It's also more bouyant, so the gas bag would be smaller for the same weight, and you could launch it from earth with less delta V.

  • I should have become an air conditioning technician.

Somebody ought to cross ball point pens with coat hangers so that the pens will multiply instead of disappear.

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