Is NASA looking to create permanent settlements on Venus?

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

While the overwhelming majority of NASA’s recent R&D efforts are focused on getting humans to Mars, they aren’t ignoring other planets, as evidenced by an ongoing project that would send a piloted, helium-filled airship to explore the atmosphere of Venus.

According to a Space.com report published Monday, the project is known as HAVOC (the High Altitude  Venus Operational Concept) and could entail not just investigating Earth’s sister planet, but also establishing human colonies in the clouds that fill its acid-laced skies.

Chris Jones of the Langley Research Center in Virginia told the website that doing so would be “a very big technological challenge,” but noted that it “could be possible down the road.” Does this mean that Venus is another potential target for human exploration – an alternative to Mars? Yes, Jones and his Langley colleague Dale Arney said.

Wreaking HAVOC on Venus

The key to such a mission’s success, the NASA scientists explain, would be to avoid the harsh surface conditions of a planet that reaches temperatures in excess of 850 degrees Fahrenheit and ground-level atmospheric pressure 90 times higher than that found here on Earth.

Instead, HAVOC would remain roughly 30 miles above the surface in what Space.com calls “much more manageable conditions” – atmospheric pressure closer to that of our home planet and average temperatures of a sweltering, but not unbearable, 167 degrees Fahrenheit.

Venus also has another advantage, as it is the closest planet to Earth, reducing the duration of a potential mission there. Armey explained that Venus “is no worse than the second planet” that humans would travel to after leaving Earth, and that an analysis of its orbital mechanics and its potential habitability is “sort of what kick-started” the whole HAVOC project.

Building cloud cities on Venus in five easy steps

At this point, HAVOC is only a study, and Space.com emphasizes that there are “no concrete plans” to take the mission beyond the concept stage. In its current form, it would entail a five-step plan that would prove that the mission is technologically feasible before sending astronauts to Venus and establishing cloud cities within its atmosphere.

In the first phase, an unmanned, 102-foot-long airship would be sent to explore the atmosphere of the planet, and in the second, a pair of astronauts would spend 30 days orbiting Venus. In the third and fourth phases, two crewmembers would travel through the planet’s skies in an airship for periods of 30 days and one-year, and in phase five, the colony would be established.

The project would use solar-powered airships flying at an altitude of 30 miles, where they would generate power by receiving 40-percent more of the sun’s energy than on Earth, according to Space.com said. The vehicles would be propeller-driven and outfitted with instruments to study the atmosphere, and the manned ones would have living quarters and a multistage rocket capable of launching the NASA astronauts back to Earth at the mission’s end.

Once the crew reached orbit, they would rendezvous with a spacecraft and travel back to Earth. However, for such a mission to work, the team would have to overcome a number of challenges, including creating solar panels that could function in such a harsh environment and a powerful enough rocket to escape Venus’ gravity and return the astronauts to Earth.

“There’s a lot that you’re going to have to develop, regardless of what destination you go to,” including reliable life-support systems for the airships and deep-space vehicles, Arney told the website. He and Jones have not tallied up the estimated cost of HAVOC, he added. At this time, their focus is solely on the performance and technological aspects of the mission.

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