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Scientific missions to explore Venus face unique challenges due to the planet’s hot and hostile environment. Aerospace company Northrop Grumman conducted a feasibility study in 2012 of an inflatable aircraft powered by propellers called the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP).
Northrop Grumman plans to enter the VAMP design in NASA’s next New Frontiers, which will begin on October 1. New Frontiers is NASA’s series of space exploration missions that aim to study several planets in the solar system. Companies are competing for $1 billion in funding for their projects. The winning mission will have to be prepared to launch around 2021.
An orbiting spacecraft would deliver VAMP to Venus and would later act as a communications link between VAMP and Earth. VAMP would inflate before it reached the planet’s atmosphere. Its large surface area would help it withstand the heat of atmospheric entry.
VAMP would have a wingspan of about 150 feet and a payload capacity of 440 pounds. It would be able to stay airborne for almost a year while it used a combination of powered flight and passive floating to study Venus. VAMP would be able to travel at a top speed of 135 miles per hour.
The aircraft could fly at an altitude of 31 to 44 miles over the surface of Venus. In the area where VAMP would fly, the atmospheric pressure is comparable to that on Earth and the temperature is about 15 degrees Celsius. These are much better conditions than the high pressure and extremely high temperatures on the planet’s surface.
VAMP would be the first application of Northrop Grumman’s Lifting Entry/Atmospheric Flight (LEAF) aircraft. The aircraft could fly over any planetary body with an atmosphere, including Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn’s moon Titan.
Northrop Grumman has formed a science advisory board to define scientific goals and measurement requirements and to identify possible instruments for future VAMP missions. It will also analyze existing data on Venus that might be helpful in planning VAMP’s mission.