Friday, June 19, 2015

Taking to the Clouds of VENUS

There is a really awesome inflatable propeller-powered aircraft called the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverability Platform (VAMP). The aircraft would fly the skies above Venus at an altitude between 55 and 70 kilometers, but alas many of the non-scientists (as is often the case) don’t see the value in this mission. They don’t understand why a planet that is so hostile could be of so much interest when Mars exists and is waiting for us.

For that reason let me start by reminding you of a few facts about Venus.

Venus is often called the Earth’s sister planet and there is a reason for that, due to its similar size and composition. (Their difference in diameter is only 638 KM) AND both have a central core, a molten mantle, and a crust. Venus may be Earth's sister planet, yet its tectonics, volcanism, surface-atmospheric processes, atmospheric dynamics and chemistry are all remarkably different from those on Earth, which has resulted in remarkably different end states for its surface crust and atmosphere.

Where it differs is perhaps more interesting and speaks to why we are so interested in knowing more. There are the details of where it orbits and how. It takes 243 Earth days to rotate once on its access. ALSO, it rotates counter-clockwise. Venus has no natural satellites. Atmospheric pressure on Venus is 92 times greater than Earths. Small Asteroids are crushed when entering its atmosphere and so there are no pot marks on the surface of the planet. If a human walked on the surface the pressure felt would be similar to what one might experience deep beneath the sea. Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system. With an average temperature of 462 degrees, Venus due to a lack of a tilt on its axis, there is no season variation. Its dense atmosphere (96.5%) carbon dioxide traps heat and causes a greenhouse effect. Venus is believed to have started out its planetary life a more pleasant place to visit but has since changed radically. There are dense clouds of sulfuric acid that surround Venus and make it impossible to view from outside of its atmosphere. Perhaps once Venus had oceans but alas these evaporated as the planets temperature increased to what it is today.

A final piece of ‘trivia’ before reviewing the VAMP; Venus is known as both the Evening Star AND the Morning Star. In fact the Greeks & Romans had two names for Venus (Phosphorus and Hesperus by the Greeks, and Lucifer and Vesper by the Romans) due to the fact that it was believed to be two different bodies. This is actually logical as when its orbit around the Sun overtakes Earth’s orbit, it stops being visible as the Evening Star and starts to show up as the Morning Star.

Now to the awesome VAMP. Northrop Grumman is currently developing an inflatable, propeller-powered plane-like spacecraft or Venus-craft that could both surf the sulfurous skies of Venus.

A this point it is a concept at this point and still needs to ‘win’ the competition in NASA’s last New Frontiers contest. The competition for the next mission in the New Frontiers line begins in 2016 and is a cost capped class of $1 billion robotic solar system explorers. This will be the fourth competition.

For this competition NASA has set forth the following rules for mission types they will consider (keep in mind the name – New Frontiers): Comet surface-sample return, Saturn probe, Lunar south pole Aitken Basin sample return, Venus Lander, Trojan asteroid tour and rendezvous probe.

Given the many things that are active in the far end of the solar system, Venus seems a wining idea.

The VAMP aircraft would not soar the skies en route but rather be delivered to Venus by an orbiting spacecraft which would later act as a communicator to Earth from the VAMP. VAMP would inflate outside the atmosphere with its large surface area helping to manage the heat loads of atmospheric entry. Vamp will have a wingspan of nearly 150 feet (45.7 m) and a payload capacity of 100 pounds (45.4 kg). VAMP will be able to stay airborne for nearly a year as it studies Venus and its atmosphere by using a combination of powered flight and passive floating.

VAMP faces stiff competition in the next New Frontiers contest for the mission. To win, Northrop Grumman will have to convince NASA that they can demonstrate a working prototype within about four years and that VAMP can carry enough scientific instruments to fulfill key science objectives set forth by the most recent decadal survey. Thankfully the forum provided is of a type that promotes information sharing and the asking of questions  to help aid in design resolution.

The cool thing about VAMP is that this would be the first application of a family of Lifting Entry/Atmospheric Flight LEAF aircraft (Lifting Entry/Atmospheric Flight) that could fly the skies of any planetary body with an atmosphere. (This includes Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn’s moon Titan)

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