There's a reason why we're focused on colonizing Mars rather than Venus: the latter is absolutely inhospitable. Its atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide and in terms of pressure, 92 times stronger than Earth's. That's not counting the fact that the planet is the hottest in our solar system. Needless to say, getting a computer to work on Venus' surface is a challenge. But NASA scientists might have cracked what it takes to keep electronics functioning on the sulfuric planet.
Prior to this, any such equipment would require "pressure vessels and/or cooling systems" to keep sensitive electronics safe. Scientists from NASA's Glenn Research Center tossed an oscillator into the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig, cranked the machine up to Venus-levels of heat and pressure and waited to see what happened. How'd it fare? Pretty well. The interconnect wires, when combined with silicon carbide chips and protected by ceramics, withstood the harsh elements with aplomb. Some 521 hours later, the oscillator was removed.
When you consider the previous record of survival on Venus' surface was two hours and seven minutes on the Soviet craft Venera 13 in 1982, this is even more impressive. All told, this should dramatically increase the amount of data we can glean about the planet's caustic environment, and help supplement NASA's plan for airship cities floating above Venus.
NASA wants to build airship cities in the Venus sky
Since Venus is closer to Earth than Mars -- both in size and distance -- it would be a much more convenient candidate for manned exploration. There's just a slight hitch: the average temperature is 850 degrees F, and the atmosphere is 90 times denser than ours. In other words, you'd die in the opposite way that Quaid nearly did in Total Recall. Probes have been sent to the planet's surface, but the Russian Venera 13 survived the longest at just 127 minutes in 1982. As it does, NASA has figured a way around all that. In IEEE Spectrum, it outlined a study called HAVOC to build a floating "city" of astronaut-manned zeppelins that would hover 30 miles above the planet.
At such an altitude, the pressure would be the same as Earth's at sea level and the temperature would be a still scorching, but manageable 165 degrees F. What's more, radiation levels would be much less than those on Mars -- about the same as Canada gets. The travel length would also be much shorter, solar power would be plentiful, the atmosphere is extremely buoyant for blimps and there would be an option to abort the mission early and return home.
After a risky arrival, where the goal is most definitely to not land, astronauts would be able stay for 30 days in 400-foot blimps powered by 10,000 square feet of solar panels. Venus remains one of the least studied planets in our solar system, so scientists could learn about the planet's runaway greenhouse effect and study its highly acidic atmosphere. The airships could also bring robotic landers to study the soil and other factors on the surface.
So far, there's no plan to turn the study into an actual manned mission, particularly since NASA is focused strictly on Mars. But the space agency's Dale Arney said "given that Venus' upper atmosphere is a fairly hospitable destination, we think it's... probably no worse than the second planet you might go to behind Mars."
Gravity wave ripples across Venus' hellish atmosphere
It took the Japanese atmospheric probe Akatsuki a while, but once it got into orbit around Venus just over a year ago, it immediately spotted a large, bow-shaped disturbance. Researchers now believe the phenomenon was a gravity wave, or atmospheric formation caused by the topography below. The feature is nearly 6,000 miles wide and remained in nearly the same spot for four days, despite scalding surface winds that whip at 250 mph. The unusual nature of the wave led the scientists to conclude that atmospheric conditions on the surface of Venus may be different than previously thought.
The term "gravity wave" (not to be confused with the space-time distortinggravitational wave) is a bit confusing -- in the atmosphere, it can be thought of as vertical wave. The most common way to trigger a vertical wave is by putting something in the way of surface winds, like a mountain. That forces it to rise, and if the surrounding air is stable enough, gravity will make it sink right back down, kicking off the wave cycle. On our planet, this can cause long, thin clouds to appear at high elevations over mountainous regions at the "peaks" of the gravity wave.
On Venus, it's the same phenomenon, but in a much more extreme setting. The "morning star" is like Bizarro Earth, if every single person drove diesel Volkswagens for the next billion years or so. The planet's sulfuric acid atmosphere is 90 times denser than ours, and those greenhouse gases produce surface temperatures of 850 degrees F, while winds constantly whip the planet at up to 250 mph. (Venus is about 72 percent of Earth's distance to the Sun and nearly the same size.)
Using its UV and infrared cameras, the Akatsuki team examined temperature variances on the bow wave, with known topography from the planet overlaid (below). The center of the bow is located at the western slope of "Aphrodite Terra," an Africa-sized highland region stretching up to 5 km (15,000 feet) high. Mission scientists figure that the winds whipped across these highlands, rapidly pushing a column of air into the upper reaches of the 65km thick atmosphere.
At a certain elevation, conditions were right to form a stable, bow-shaped gravity wave in the atmosphere, scientists believe. "It further shows that such stationary gravity waves can have a very large scale -- perhaps the greatest ever observed in the solar system," the team writes.
Simulations show such a feature should be theoretically possible, but it doesn't fit known data about the planet's surface weather, so climatologists may have to rethink what they know about Venus. "Winds in the deep atmosphere may be spatially or temporally more variable than we previously thought," the team posits. That's understandable, given that it's not exactly easy to set a probe down on the planet's metal-melting surface.
After several days of observation, Akatsuki crossed to the other side of the planet and when it returned a few months later, the structure was gone. As of yet, the probe has yet to spot a similar disturbance, so it may be a rare event and "beginner's luck" for the mission. Either way, it could prove helpful to future experiments or be an aid if we ever decide to terraformour nearest neighbor.