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Aerobot designed for hell-world Venus first braves something worse: Nevada

And by worse, we mean: The endless casinos

Scientists have successfully launched a prototype aerial robotic balloon 4,000 feet high over a desert in Nevada to test whether it could one day be sent on a space mission to roam Venus' clouds.

The 2030s have already been heralded as the "decade of Venus". Space agencies NASA and ESA promised to fund three different science investigations to visit the planet and study its surface and atmosphere. Rocket Lab and MIT are hoping to go to Earth's nearest neighbor even sooner in the world's first-ever private mission launching next year. 

Trying to get up close and personal to Venus is difficult. The surface temperature is about 475 degrees Celsius (around 900 degrees Fahrenheit) and would scorch a robotic lander. Sending orbiters that can observe Venus at a distance is more sensible, but they won't be able to collect close-up data.

Teams led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Near Space Corporation, an aerospace company based in Oregon believe aerial robotic balloons might just work. 

They developed a prototype made up of several different layers to protect against Venus' sulfuric acid atmospheric compounds, cool the balloon, and shield its internal instruments from the harsh environment of the atmosphere. Initial flights testing the balloon's ability to fly, conducted over the Black Rock desert in Nevada, were successful. 

"The pressures and temperatures at 50–60 km in Venus, where a balloon would fly, are very similar to sea level on Earth," Paul Byrne, an Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, working on the project, explained to The Register. "So we could send a balloon platform there and have it operate for tens of days or even longer—far, far longer than a lander to the surface could last."

Ideally, an aerobot balloon would be sent alongside an orbiter and both would work alongside each other. "Equally, the kinds of science questions we could tackle from within the atmosphere are different to and complement those we can do from orbiting spacecraft," he said. 

The balloon is described as "balloon within a balloon," nestled inside is a rigid helium balloon that can contract and expand to increase and decrease pressure. To fly higher, the helium gas from the inner balloon is blown into the outer balloon, which expands to make the whole device more buoyant. To fly lower, the outer balloon pumps helium back into the inner one making it shrink and fall. 

"These tests showed us that we can successfully command the balloon to change its altitude via a helium reservoir inside the balloon envelope, which is something we'd want a Venus balloon to do autonomously," Byrne told us. "That's the biggest mechanical capability we wanted to test, but we're still in the process of comparing our actual flight telemetry with predictions from models, which we would use to plan the flight of an actual balloon at Venus."

The team is working on scaling up the prototype. The final design will be three times bigger, measuring 12 meters in diameter and probably won't weigh more than a thousand kilograms.

"We're extremely happy with the performance of the prototype. It was launched, demonstrated controlled-altitude maneuvers, and was recovered in good condition after both flights," Jacob Izraelevitz, a robotics technologist from NASA's JPL leading the balloon's development, said in a statement. "We've recorded a mountain of data from these flights and are looking forward to using it to improve our simulation models before exploring our sister planet."

The ultimate goal is to send a fully-fledged aerobot that could descend into Venus' clouds to hitch a ride on the planets' winds, where it could float around travelling east to west, for at least 100 days. It would carry a range of instruments capable of detecting earthquakes, analyzing the chemical composition of its atmosphere, and viewing the planet's surface. 

Byrne believes the upcoming missions will help scientists answer fundamental questions about the formation and life in the Solar System. "There are some huge questions regarding how planets form, how they gain and lose atmospheres, and what keeps them habitable (or makes them uninhabitable) that we can tackle at Venus. Honestly, I'm staggered by how much we don't know about the only other Earth-size world in the Solar System, a world that happens to be just next door."

If the aerobot balloon is to fly to Venus one day, NASA will have to continue funding the project and select a proposal outlining how the device can be sent and used in space. "We're anticipating an upcoming call for missions late next year, so we're keeping our fingers crossed," he said. ®

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