NASA is hosting an eagerly anticipated competition in 2016 called New Frontiers, and it's guaranteed to attract the most innovative and cutting-edge creations that all aim to shoot into space. These projects include ideas such as a craft that will take a sample from a comet to return to Earth, a Saturn probe, and a lunar pole sample gatherer.
But there is one in particular that has begun to attract attention and spark discussions: A space blimp, built by Northrop Grumman, that will float serenely over the acid clouds of Venus. The Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) would inflate with a buoyant gas around 50-70 kilometers (30-43 miles) above the surface of Venus and use a propeller to remain airborne.
Venus has a similar size and mass to Earth, but it's also cloaked in a scorching fog of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. Surface temperatures have been measured at 465oC (870oF) and the pressure is around 90 Earth atmospheres.
However, when compared to the surface, the outer atmosphere is positively balmy. The pressure floating above Venusian clouds is around 1 atmosphere—the same as on Earth—and the temperature around 15oC (59oF). For this reason, it's much easier to float above all that surface chaos.
"Not a whole lot different than flying on Earth," Ron Polidan, Northrop's California-based chief architect of civil systems, said. "If you wanna just sprinkle sulfuric acid all over yourself, that would be more like what you have on Venus."
There have been atmosphere probes around Venus in the past; the Venus Express probe crashed into Venus in 2014 after an impressive eight-year mission. The exhausted probe ran out of fuel and couldn't stay afloat.
VAMP would attempt to overcome this with a solar-powered propeller. At night, the batteries would be supported by an Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator, which simply converts heat produced by radioactive decay into electricity.
However, this doesn't mean that VAMP will be a permanent sky-resident over Venus: The limiting factor will be the inflatable gases in the blimp. VAMP could stay afloat for around a year before the gradual loss of buoyant gas means that it slowly plummets towards Venus' unforgiving atmosphere.
Given the competition, VAMP will have a lot of work to do to stand out. Will VAMP be able to answer the science community's most pressing questions about Venus?
"We have a list of a about a dozen instruments that people have proposed we fly … and we convened a science advisory board to help us define both the instruments and where the aircraft needs to be to take the needed measurements," Polidan said.
VAMP has room for around 20 kilograms (44 lbs) of recording equipment. The inflatable aircraft could use a variety of kit to take new recordings of Venus' atmosphere and unravel the mysteries around Earth's evil twin.