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Engineers at aerospace firms Northrop Grumman and L’Garde have been working for the past year on a design for an inflatable aircraft that could one day be used to study the atmosphere of Venus.
The unmanned concept vehicle, the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP), would be carried to Venus’ orbit on a carrier spacecraft. The VAMP’s design calls for a 151-foot wingspan, larger than NASA’s space shuttle. However, it would weigh just 992 pounds. It would deploy and inflate with hydrogen or another buoyant gas and then detach and fall slowly into the planet’s atmosphere.
VAMP would travel through Venus’ atmosphere 34 to 43 miles above the surface. It would use propellers powered by solar panels to travel high in the atmosphere during the day. It would travel lower at night using batteries or an advanced stirling radioisotope generator, which converts heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into electricity.
If it flew at an altitude of 43 miles, the inflatable aircraft could carry up to 44 pounds of equipment. If it flew at a slightly lower altitude, it could carry 10 times that weight. Data would be transmitted back to Earth via the carrier spacecraft, which would continue orbiting Venus.
The VAMP would be carried around Venus by strong winds about every six days. The inflatable aircraft could study Venus for about a year before it gradually lost all of its buoyant gas.
Scientists involved with the project say it could be achieved using existing technology. They want to study Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it changed from a place that could have once supported life to the extremely hot planet that it is today. Similar aircraft might one day be used to study Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan.