One of the simplest ways to find out about Venus is perhaps with a fleet of balloons

Interest in studying Venus has surged recently, particularly after a recent controversial discovery of phosphine, a potential biosignature, in the planet’s atmosphere. Many missions to Venus have been proposed, and NASA and ESA have recently funded several. However, they are primarily orbiters trying to look down into the planet’s interior from above. But they are challenged by having to see through tens of kilometers of an atmosphere of sulfuric acid.

The same atmosphere is a challenge for ground missions. While some of the recently funded missions include a ground component, they miss an opportunity not offered on many other planets in the solar system — to ride in the atmosphere. Technologists have proposed everything from simple balloons to entire floating cities — we’ve even heard of a plan to enclose all of Venus in a shell and live on the surface of that shell. But for now, balloons seem like an easier answer. That’s the mission modality proposed by a team of researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more about something that was only confirmed to exist on Venus last week – volcanism.

Scientists have long believed that there are active volcanoes on Venus. Some older probes collected data suggesting this, but it wasn’t until a recent study analyzing data from Magellan that we knew volcanoes on Venus were still active. At this point, anyone can imagine what this means for the study of seismology, evolution, and even the geophysiology of the planet. But the proposed JPL balloon mission would help shed some light.

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Venus is a harsh environment. According to this UT video, we need technology that can survive there.

Their mission design, described in an article published free of charge on one of the author’s personal websites, involves using a mesh network of balloons and an orbiting satellite to detect and travel to active volcanic events and get as much data from them as possible collect. This may sound difficult, especially without people “in the loop” controlling where the balloons go, but it’s certainly better than letting them go where the wind takes them.

It’s much better – 63% better at close-up observations of active or recently active volcanoes, according to the team’s simulations. But how they arrived at that number could use further explanation. First, how can you tell if a volcano is erupting on a planet completely obscured from the outside view?

They proposed using a technology called infrasonic microbarometers – basically, these tiny tools detect pressure differences in the atmosphere caused by volcanic eruptions. If you’re looking for a volcanic eruption, analyzing data from one of these instruments can at least point you in the direction of the blast wave they’re producing. Even if you’re pointing in the right direction, without an active propulsion system, how can a balloon get close enough to start collecting data?

UT takes a look at the missions scheduled to return to Venus.

According to the paper, they can simply ride the wind. The atmosphere of Venus is complex, and different layers can have different directional winds with different speeds. A balloon could rise or fall in the right wind current and drive it in the direction of the eruption. Sounds pretty nifty, but a balloon alone wouldn’t necessarily be able to detect wind currents outside of its immediate area, making it difficult if not impossible to plan a route to the volcano. That’s where gearing comes into play.

Orbiting above the planet and looking down through the atmosphere has one benefit — it allows the orbiter to see various wind currents that could be used to steer balloons in the right direction. Even better, if a balloon detects an interesting pressure change but can’t find a way to get there due to its local wind conditions, the orbiter could relay that information directly to one of the other balloons in the group, which might have a better chance of getting there due to there its own local wind pattern. So he can not only act as a navigator for a single balloon, but also act as a relay and coordinator for an entire fleet of them.

Humans can still be helpful, resulting in longer time near potential points of interest if they were involved in guiding the balloon system. But humans also need to eat, sleep, and do other things than monitor distant robotic probes, so their response times can sometimes introduce a delay that would render them unable to take advantage of current wind conditions. Therefore, an automated system around the planet could serve as the best and quickest way to find the sensor’s path to these spectacular events.

Understanding Venus’ volcanism will help us understand its evolution – and how it ended up being so different from ours, as explained in this UT video.

Once a balloon has landed on you, they may even be able to drop a payload directly into the volcano’s caldera, gathering invaluable information, however short-lived the mission. Given enough chances, the breakthrough of finding a single volcano on Venus will go down in scientific history as we begin to understand what made our twin planet tick and makes it tick.

Learn more:
Rossi et al – Proximal exploration of Venusian volcanism with teams of autonomous lift-controlled balloons
UT – A balloon mission that may attempt to confirm life on Venus
UT – Balloon Mission could also work to detect tremors on Venus
UT – Exploring Venus By Airship: Cool concept, but certainly not new

main picture:
Image of the operational concept described in the paper.
Credit – Rossi et al.

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