Story 2014-12-22 2W8E NASA envisons an airborne colony on Venus, before Mars

NASA envisons an airborne colony on Venus, before Mars

in space on (#2W8E)
story imageThe science world has been mostly fixated on Mars and comets, but some scientists at NASA are starting to talk about Venus -- suggesting a manned mission to our closest neighbor could be simpler and less expensive than a trip to Mars.

Venus is one of the least hospitable places in the solar system. Its close proximity to the sun makes its surface unimaginably hot -- 462 degrees celsius. And its lower atmosphere is a highly pressurized oven of noxious gases. A manned mission to Venus, however, wouldn't have to involve the planet's surface. Researchers say just a few miles higher up and Venus's atmosphere boasts conditions not unlike Earth's, with more a manageable temperature and pressure. A new study by researchers at the Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate, part of the NASA Langley Research Center, suggests astronauts could circle Venus in a helium-inflated dirigible -- conducting science experiments as they orbit.

This mission calls for a 129-meter airship floating 50 kilometers above the surface, called the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), which has a small habitat suspended below and solar panels on top for power. At that level, the atmospheric pressure is one atmosphere. The temperature up that high is only 75 degrees Celsius, which is perfectly manageable. Even at 50 kilometers up, Venus’ atmosphere offers ample protection from radiation — it’s about the same level you’d experience in Canada. Mars, on the other hand, would expose astronauts to 40 times more radiation than on Earth. Power would be no problem as Venus gets 40% more solar energy than Earth and 240 times more than Mars. Since there is a thick atmosphere, the airship could use that electrical power to spin propellers or turbines for propulsion.
Reply 27 comments

Falling (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-22 07:07 (#2W8P)

If you fell out of this thing, would you die before you hit the ground?

Re: Falling (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-12-22 08:15 (#2W8R)

You'd certainly go unconscious pretty quickly... extremely high temperatures combined with no oxygen and poison gases if you do try to take a breath. No doubt you'd have heat-stroke before you hit, but the human body doesn't just instantly shut-off when stressed beyond its limits. With the fall taking less than 2 minutes, you'd likely still be alive, even if pretty far gone.

Re: Falling (Score: 1, Funny)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-12-22 08:59 (#2W8S)

Oh wow man you man it sound like... well.. basejumping into lava

Re: Falling (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-23 16:49 (#2WAC)

Ok, what about being shot into the sun? Assuming you're in a space suit capable of like support in open space, leaving from earth, at what point would you actually die? I imagine you wouldn't make it alive to the sun's corona, right?

Re: Falling (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-23 16:53 (#2WAD)

Probably when your oxygen, or heat source runs out.. that said, I don't think most spacesuits can survive temps upwards of 200C, and I'd be surprised if you didn't hit those temps somewhere around mercury (give or take a few thousand miles).

Re: Falling (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-23 20:30 (#2WAK)

well, we're imagining a space suit that could keep you alive under normal conditions in space in the neighborhood of earth. So this theoretical space suit never runs out of air, and could indefinitely keep you alive in the same area of space that earth orbits. So no crazy heat shield other than that required around earth.

The point is that you probably wouldn't reach the sun ( think this is also true of any gas giants) , so how bad would Venus have to be to kill you before you hit the ground.

Extra credit if you show your work or conduct any experiments near the sun.

Re: Falling (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-24 12:44 (#2WBC)

I've never needed extra credit :P

Anyhow, a space suit with a nuclear battery and oxygen generation capabilities, it would only leave heat or pressure.. as I'm no space suit engineer, I'm pretty sure that the temp increasing to 460+ C or pressure approaching 93 bar would do some irreparable harm to the integrity of the space suit, allowing boiling hot sulfuric acid into your lungs.. yummy.

Re: Falling (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2015-01-02 09:30 (#2WM8)

Nuclear battery. I have leant something new today. Thank you

What about storms? (Score: 3, Interesting)

by on 2014-12-22 11:56 (#2W90)

Atmospheric pressure about the same as on earth at that height. Heat ~75 degrees Celsius. Here on earth we have much less heat and still devastating storms. I don't think I would feel save in a zeppelin. No way to do an emergency landing, and those glorified balloons are not known to be exceptionally fast. So not outrunning a storm.

Please make the stupid stop! (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-12-22 16:11 (#2W94)

We can BEGIN to think seriously about colonies around other planets AFTER we've successfully sent a colony of mice there and back. Until that happens it's just nonsense.

Insane idea (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-12-22 19:10 (#2W98)

The cloud deck just happens to start at the postulated 50 km, and those clouds are composed of SULPHURIC ACID. How is the structure, necessarily extremely lightweight, going to withstand that kind of environment? There are also very high wind speeds.

On the surface, the idea is tantalizing, but even a cursory review of some of the gotchas pretty well relegates it to pure fantasy.

Re: Insane idea (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-23 02:23 (#2W9N)

Many plastics are resistant to sulfuric acid and for metals there are coatings and/or passivation techniques to reduce corrosion. Also "lightweight" is relative since the atmosphere is hundreds of times as dense as Earth's.

Re: Insane idea (Score: 2, Insightful)

by on 2014-12-23 10:49 (#2WA5)

Generally you are right. Sulfuric acid can be handled just fine.... under normal conditions on Earth. But on Venus? Constant high temperatures? Hard UV radiation? I'd say this rules out most normally usable plastics. Before people are put into such a balloon, I'd like to see them at least for a few years floating over Venus... UNMANNED.

Re: Insane idea (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-12-24 18:45 (#2WBN)

If the atmosphere really does offer good protection from radiation at that altitude, there should be plastics that can handle the UV. These wouldn't be the everyday plastics that make up your deck furniture, but there are lots of plastic additives that can modify the UV stability of a polymer without changing its performance.

Re: Insane idea (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-26 07:39 (#2WDC)

Different kind of radiation. Earth's atmosphere does a very good job to protect us from cosmic and gamma rays. That's great since those are the biggest problem. And that's were the real value of the protection of Venus' atmosphere lies. Earth's atmosphere also protects us from UV rays, but with less efficiency the lower their frequency is. According to the article Venus gets 40% more solar energy than Earth at the same height. So I just assume, that Venus also gets 40% more of hard UV light. When it comes to radiation exposure for the crew or instruments, this does not matter at all. Even hardest UV light is that easily blocked, that this aspect does not even require a special thought. However, UV radiation ages plastics. Sure, it won't be the everyday plastics, which make up our deck furniture. But with much stronger UV radiation, greater heat, and perhaps exposure to sulfuric acid it is not the everyday environment.

Re: Insane idea (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-26 16:14 (#2WDQ)

I know the difference between the energies of different ranges on the EM spectrum. I also know More than a little bit about oxidation and the effects of UV on plastics. The properties of the average plastics we use in daily life are usually a balance of desired performance and affordability. With this project being an important scientific endeavor, I don't think cost will be as important a factor. That's all I'm saying.

Re: Insane idea (Score: -1, Flamebait)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-12-26 18:25 (#2WDX)

With almost everything the gov't does, they take the lowest bid, and it still comes out more expensive and half the quality it should have been...

Re: Insane idea (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-24 07:35 (#2WB4)

I guess you COMPLETELY MISSED the point of these aerostats floating at an altitude where the Venus atmosphere is exactly the same as it is at sea level on Earth.

Re: Insane idea (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-24 07:48 (#2WB5)

Same pressure. And only 75 instead of462 degrees celsius. Certainly not same composition. This does not make it 'the same as it is at sea level on Earth'. And it might not have the heavy concentration of sulfuric acid as on ground level, but is the atmosphere in 50km height totally free of it?

Re: Insane idea (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-24 17:47 (#2WBK)

Correct; if pressure is the same (1.0 at 49.5 km), and temperature is essentially the same (20-37C at 52.5-54 km), then density is 1.5, since the composition is essentially pure carbon dioxide. The buoyancy of an air-filled aerostat is then 0.5, compared to about 0.9 for a helium-filled aerostat at sea level on earth.

That necessitates the structure of the aerostat being extremely lightweight.

Re: Insane idea (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-24 18:39 (#2WBM)

I guess you completely missed the point that the habitat is only a small part of the entire structure.

Misleading/incorrect summary (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-12-23 17:57 (#2WAG)

I'm pretty sure the "It also has a thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide that can be used to feed photosynthetic plants" part of the article is referring to Mars.

Just wow (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-12-25 18:56 (#2WCY)

I didn't know that pipedot was chuck full of NASA scientists. You guys read the title and immediately started screaming ACID! ROBOT! didn't you?

If you read the fine article or even the fine summary you'll see that there are actual scientists doing this research who did an actual study about all your concerns and probably more, which you can't have considered in five seconds or maybe will never think of in a life time. Nobody is here to see how ignorant you are, please don't vandalize pipedot like this.

Anyway, does anyone remember that movie in which the elite lived on cities above the clouds and the mutated peasants on the ground?

Re: Just wow (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-12-25 19:22 (#2WCZ)

All I can think of (which are not correct, and TV shows) are the Jetsons, and the Oblongs. And also The Time Machine.

Why? (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-26 14:37 (#2WDP)

What's the point of floating cities on Venus anyway? I mean, if the population is going to be stuck in a tin-can anyway, you might as well do it in a tin-can that is /going/ somewhere or can do something useful. At least on a Mars colony you nominally have easier access to local resources, but - except for some highly polluted atmosphere - Venus doesn't even offer that. Focus on L-4 and -5 space platforms, asteroid mining, even interstellar generation ships; all would be more productive uses of our resources than bobbing about in Venus's atmosphere.

I've never been a fan of planetary colonization anyway; short of finding a 1-in-a-million life-bearing planet, we're probably better off remaining in space; we're going to be stuck in artificial habitats no matter where we go, and we can find the same resources in solar orbit.

Life has spent 2 billion years crawling out a deep gravity well; there's no reason we have to immediately dive right back in.

Re: Why? (Score: 1)

by on 2014-12-26 18:12 (#2WDW)

What's the point of floating cities on Venus anyway?
From the article:
A new study by researchers at the Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate, part of the NASA Langley Research Center, suggests astronauts could circle Venus in a helium-inflated dirigible -- conducting science experiments as they orbit.
So no cities to live in, but research platforms.