Venus-exploring inflatable aircraft may soon be developed

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Engineers at Northrop Grumman have been exploring the possibility of creating an inflatable aircraft that could travel to Venus for more than two years, and now it appears the company could soon begin work on an actual prototype of the vehicle.

According to Engadget and SpaceNews, Northrop Grumman is planning to enter the so-called Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) aircraft into NASA’s 2015 New Frontiers competition, which is slated to begin on October 1.

The websites further report that the company envisions the vehicle as a large, light UAV that has a wingspan of more than 150 feet and is capable of maintaining an altitude of between 34 and 43 miles for up to 12 full months. VAMP will also be able to carry as much as 440 pounds worth of equipment and data-collecting instruments to study the planet’s atmosphere.

Hurdles to overcome before a working prototype can be built

“I think we can be ready,” Ron Polidan, chief architect of civil systems at Northrop Grumman, told SpaceNews on Monday. However, the website added that the team still “has to clear some major engineering hurdles” to meet the competition’s goal of being launch-ready by 2021.

Chief among those hurdles is the fact that nothing like VAMP has ever taken flight before, with the closest comparison being a pair of ultra-light wings built by Northrop’s partners at California based L. Garde Inc., SpaceNews explained. Those vehicles were part of a now-defunct DARPA initiative to create a collapsible, rocket-deployed drone that could used for reconnaissance.

Both Northrop and L.Garde were working separately on the DARPA project before eventually joining forces prior to the project’s cancellation in 2010. The wings built by L. Garde would not be able to survive the atmosphere of Venus and were only ever in wind tunnels, the website said. Even so, Polidan believes that VAMP currently rates a three on NASA’s Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, placing it at the “proof of concept” stage of development.

Technologies deemed to be “flight proven” through actual mission operations are ranked TRL 9, the publication explained, and in its last New Frontiers competition, the space agency accepted proposals that had reached the prototype stage, TRL 6. Polidan told Space News that this was not a deal-breaker, and that he and his colleagues had “a few more years” to finish a working version of the VAMP aircraft before the preliminary design review deadline.

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