Friday, April 13, 2012
This video uploaded two days ago has been getting some attention on Reddit:
The basic premise is this:
1) Venus is interesting, our sister planet, may have had life, may still have life up in the clouds. Agree.
2) So we should explore it. Agree.
3) We need a mission to the surface and it will cost way more than missions to Mars. Do not agree.
On point #3 I do not agree because of two reasons: 1) We do not need to concentrate on surface missions for quite some time, and 2) Even mentioning the surface further promotes the mistaken image we have of Venus: that it is a hellish planet that is nearly impossible to explore. This is only true on the surface, not in the clouds.
The video does show a solar flyer, but it is not the focal point.
The reason why a flyer is so effective is actually explained in this Ted.com video advocating something similar to Mars:
What is the best way to unravel the mysteries on Mars that exist? We asked this question 10 years ago. We invited 10 of the top Mars scientists to the Langley Research Center for two days. We addressed on the board the major questions that have not been answered. And we spent two days deciding how to best answer this question. And the result of our meeting was a robotic rocket-powered airplane we call ARES...We fly about a mile above the surface. We cover hundreds of miles, and we fly about 450 miles an hour. We can do things that rovers can't do and landers can't do: We can fly above mountains, volcanoes, impact craters; we fly over valleys; we can fly over surface magnetism, the polar caps, subsurface water; and we can search for life on Mars.
The difference is that a solar flyer on Venus would be a virtually indefinite mission thanks to the slow rotation (= permanently available sunlight), and it would hover at 50 km above the surface instead of one or two. However, it would be able to dip down from time to time for a while until its electronics were in danger of melting, upon which it would retreat back to the higher part of the atmosphere to cool down, and then repeat. A first mission would be interesting enough checking out the most earthlike area with trips down to maybe 40 or 30 km above the surface (average temperature about 140 and 220 C respectively), and perhaps later ones could be built to withstand these temperatures for longer.
Finally, keep in mind that the highest parts of Venus are about 10 km above the surface, so these would be even easier to see from close up. To see the top of Maxwell Montes from a mile away, it would have to fly down to an altitude of about 13 km where the temperature is about 360 C (460 C on the surface).