Venus beckons part 2: A new NASA collaborative mission with Russia?

Artist’s conception of the Venera-D spacecraft in orbit around Venus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last week, Planetaria reported on why NASA should return to Venus, and new technology being developed to help make that happen, especially as in longer-lived landers or rovers. With its extremely hostile conditions, Venus has been much less of a priority in more recent years, at least in terms of surface missions, despite it being Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. But now there may be more impetus towards a new mission – not one that NASA would do alone, but rather a joint mission with Russia, known as Venera-D.

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Venus beckons: Why NASA should return and how new tech will help

First colour images from the surface of Venus (Soviet Venera missions). Image Credit: NASA National Space Science Data Center/Harvard Micro Observatory/Don P. Mitchell

The Solar System has been a busy place in recent years, with missions to a diverse range of worlds, from Mars, Jupiter and Saturn to distant Pluto and even comets and asteroids. Most of these have been NASA spacecraft, which continues to lay the path to exploring such distant places. There are, however, some places which have been visited in the past, decades ago, but now are seemingly no longer a priority, such as Uranus and Neptune. But there is another planet which is actually Earth’s closest neighbour, yet was only last visited in the 1970s and 1980s, by American and Soviet spacecraft – Venus.

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New NASA planetary science proposals include Venus and ‘metallic asteroid’ missions

Artist’s conception of the VERITAS spacecraft in orbit around Venus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the VERITAS spacecraft in orbit around Venus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Looking ahead to future planetary missions, NASA has selected five new science investigations for refinement over the next year. Later, one or two of those missions will be chosen to actually be launched, perhaps as early as 2020. The selections are part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which had requested the proposals in November 2014. Initially, 27 proposals had been submitted, from which the five current finalists were chosen. The five proposals would study Venus, near-Earth objects, an unusual metallic asteroid and Trojan asteroids.

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NASA awards grants to Ozark IC to create circuits for proposed Venus rover

Artist’s conception of the Venus Landsailing Rover. It would use advanced circuits which could survive longer than previous landers in the extreme surface conditions. A “sail” on top would help to move the rover on the surface using wind, a technique known as landsailing. Image Credit: NASA GRC
Artist’s conception of the Venus Landsailing Rover. It would use advanced circuits which could survive longer than previous landers in the extreme surface conditions. A “sail” on top would help to move the rover on the surface using wind, a technique known as landsailing. Image Credit: NASA GRC

In what may be a significant step toward the seemingly far-off goal of sending a rover to the surface of Venus, NASA has awarded two grants totalling $245,000 to a semiconductor technology firm to design complex integrated circuits which could withstand the extremely harsh environment on this neighboring world.

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Flying (mostly) friendly skies: Northrop Grumman developing airplane to cruise atmosphere of Venus

Artist’s conception of the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) aircraft in the atmosphere of Venus. Image Credit: Northrop Grumman artist’s concept
Artist’s conception of the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) aircraft in the atmosphere of Venus. Image Credit: Northrop Grumman artist’s concept

With so much attention now on the rovers and spacecraft at Mars, Saturn, Ceres, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and, soon, Pluto, it may seem like Earth’s closest planetary neighbor Venus has been forgotten again. But no, Venus is still very much on the minds of researchers who are busy developing a concept airplane which could cruise for years in the hellish planet’s atmosphere.

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Could life exist in Venus’ atmosphere?

Venus is an extremely inhospitable world on the surface, but high up in its atmosphere, life may be able to survive. Credit: NASA / JPL
Venus is an extremely inhospitable world on the surface, but high up in its atmosphere, life may be able to survive. Credit: NASA / JPL

Venus has a reputation for being one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system, and deservedly so. Its thick carbon dioxide (and acidic) atmosphere has a crushing pressure similar to that in the deepest oceans on Earth and the scorching temperature on the surface is hot enough to melt lead. It’s like that everywhere on the planet, all the time. It has therefore been considered an extremely unlikely environment to support any kind of life. Even the toughest microbes here would find survival next to impossible. There is however a possibility, even if remote, that the upper atmosphere of this hellish world could be habitable, according to some scientists.

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