With events like the successful test flight of the new Orion spacecraft, there’s been a great deal of talk about crewed missions to Mars lately. There’s even a rough timeline now, as NASA has eyes on setting foot on the Red Planet in the 2030s. But Mars isn’t the only planet in the neighborhood, and some are talking about travelling to Venus, and they’re borrowing ideas from Star Wars, specifically The Empire Strikes Back, to further their cause.
The surface and atmosphere of Venus are far too troublesome to realistically plan any human visitation—temperatures hover around 500 degree Celsius—despite the fact that it is a much shorter journey than the one to Mars: roughly 440 days versus somewhere between 650 and 900. That said, there is apparently one specific spot in the atmosphere where scientists believe we could place air ships and even build a permanent settlement, a kind of Cloud City. Whether or not Lando will come out of retirement to run the joint remains to be seen, but some think it could be easier than going to Mars, at least in some ways.
The specific place that researchers at the Space Mission Analysis Branch of NASA’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate are looking at is roughly 31 miles above the surface. At this range, there is one atmosphere of pressure (at the surface it’s approximately 92 times that of Earth), and the gravity is similar to what we find on our home world. It’s a wee bit on the hot side, but manageably so at 17 degrees Celsius above the average Earth temperature. This close to the sun, it would even be a prime spot to use solar power to run things.
A proposal is in the works that would eventually lead to an enduring settlement. Right now, the plan involves five phases. First comes robotic exploration, followed by a 30-day mission by a manned flight that would orbit the planet. Next, a crewed mission would spend 30 days in the atmosphere, followed by a stay of one year, and finally there would be a permanent human presence.
Sounds like a breeze, right? Yeah, we don’t think so either. You obviously wouldn’t be able to land on the planet. That would be bad, so crews would have to rendezvous with an airship inside another spacecraft, one sent out in advance. This all sounds like something straight out of an epic sci-fi movie. Instead of heading toward solid ground, they would enter the atmosphere, descend, and inflate the airship and hover somewhere in the middle. In a perfect world, here’s how that would go:
The airship would enter the Venusian atmosphere inside an aeroshell at 7,200 meters per second. Over the next seven minutes, the aeroshell would decelerate to 450 m/s, and it would deploy a parachute to slow itself down further. At this point, things get crazy. The aeroshell would drop away, and the airship would begin to unfurl and inflate itself, while still dropping through the atmosphere at 100 m/s. As the airship got larger, its lift and drag would both increase to the point where the parachute became redundant. The parachute would be jettisoned, the airship would fully inflate, and (if everything had gone as it’s supposed to), it would gently float to a stop at 50 km above Venus’s surface.
That sounds difficult, very, very difficult. And that’s assuming they could ever get funding, which, considering all of the resources and planning NASA is putting into going to Mars, doesn’t seem likely any time soon, unless there’s a drastic shift in priorities. Still, it’s an incredible idea. Maybe they can start work on a Death Star next.