For decades, landing on Mars has captivated the imagination of earthlings as the obvious next step in space exploration after landing on the moon, but NASA is also looking into ways to send a manned mission to a more forbidding neighbor – Venus.
Researchers at NASA's Langley facility have developed the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) as a possible means of exploring Earth's nearest planetary neighbor. HAVOC involves sending what is essentially a blimp and two astronauts on a month-long mission to float around the planet's atmosphere.
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Exploring Venus is difficult because of the sulfuric acid in its atmosphere, extremely hot surface temperatures that can melt lead (or a European orbiter) and crushing air pressure on the ground as well. Piloting an inflatable vehicle not only avoids all these perilous obstacles, it also makes for a relatively simple way to explore a neighboring planet without the expense and hassle of managing a descent, landing, take-off and ascent.
According to engineers that worked on the HAVOC concept, the astronauts would live and work in a floating habitat attached to the blimp-like vehicle, which would likely be filled with helium to keep it aloft. The engineers figure that in the Venusian atmosphere, the vehicle would be able to keep itself aloft at a target altitude of 50 kilometers.
The HAVOC team claims that Venus is an even better environment for airships than Earth, thanks to its heavy atmosphere.
The mission wouldn't involve piloting a space "zeppelin" of sorts all the way from Earth to Venus, of course. Exploration of the second planet from the sun would likely begin with unmanned missions to the atmosphere of Venus to test technologies and study the atmosphere before sending humans.
A craft carrying a manned crew would then be sent to rendezvous with an existing craft orbiting Venus. One of the craft would then descend into the planet's atmosphere, deploying and inflating the airship at the proper altitude. The HAVOC team envisions potential human settlements "anchored" in the atmosphere of Venus as a planetary base of sorts, not unlike the International Space Station or even a more permanent colony.
At the moment, no manned missions to Venus are planned by NASA. The HAVOC concept was devised by the agency's Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate, which conducts such studies "for the Agency decision makers." Nonetheless, it's interesting to note that manned missions to Venus are at least on the table, but it will take quite a sales job to convince those decision makers, legislators and the Americans that elect them that Venus is a more enticing option for an upcoming manned mission than Mars.
For more on HAVOC, watch the concept video below.