NASA has a keen interest in learning more about Venus and has just awarded a new contract to the company Black Swift Technologies in the hope that they will be able to develop an effective flying drone that can be taken to the planet in the coming years.
With the right tools, scientists will be able to learn more about Venus’ past and could analyze the upper atmosphere of the planet to learn whether Venus ever supported life or held liquid water, as Phys.org reports. Over the years this has become an increasingly common question as newer climate models have shown that it is highly probable that Venus once held liquid water on its surface, similar to Mars.
Scientists believe that 2 billion years ago a very shallow ocean may have stretched across the surface of the planet before greenhouse effect took over and left it to be the formidable place that we know it as today.
In new studies, researchers working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s Ames Research Center have concluded that hidden in the cloud tops of Venus there may still be some microbial life lurking, and a drone could be the perfect object to discover it.
Jack Elston, who helped to create Black Swift Technologies, explained that NASA needs a device that will be able to hover over the cloud layer of Venus. However, given the intense winds found in the planet’s upper atmosphere, it will take a lot of work to build the perfect drone that will be suitable for this task.
“They’re looking for vehicles to explore just above the cloud layer. The pressure and temperatures are similar to what you’d find on Earth, so it could be a good environment for looking for evidence of life. The winds in the upper atmosphere of Venus are incredibly strong, which creates design challenge.”
In conjunction with Black Swift Technologies, NASA aims to build a unique drone that will be able to use the intense winds of Venus to hold the drone afloat while simultaneously cutting down on the amount of electricity the machine would need to adequately function.
Elston believes that despite the challenges of building a drone that could be sent to Venus, the project will nevertheless spark innovation on a number of different projects in the future.
“Our project centers around a unique aircraft and method for harvesting energy from Venus’s upper atmosphere that doesn’t require additional sources of energy for propulsion. Our experience working on unmanned aircraft systems that interact with severe convective storms on Earth will hopefully provide a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion for how best to explore this turbulent environment. Additionally, the work we do will help inform better designs of our own aircraft and should lead to longer observation times and more robust aircraft to observe everything from volcanic plumes to hurricanes.”
If the first six months of developing the flying drone goes well and NASA approves their concept, Jack Elston explained that NASA would then provide his company with an additional $750,000 to continue the project.
“If they like what we’ve come up with, they’ll fund another two-year project to build prototypes. That second-phase contract is expected to be worth $750,000.”
Besides NASA’s plan to develop a drone to take to Venus, there are a number of other projects currently in the works to learn more about the surface of the planet. One of these has been given the name “Steampunk,” and is a rover that would be functioning with a Sterling engine and wouldn’t need a multitude of electronic parts.
If all goes according to plan with projects like NASA’s flying drone, we may one day learn definitively whether there was ever liquid water on Venus and what the planet was like before it was turned into the boiling inferno that it is today.