NASA may launch inflatable stingray drones to Venus

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Because of the extreme conditions on the planet, only one probe has lasted more than an hour or two on Venus. A new concept suggests that the body structure of the stingray may hold the key to discovering the body.

The Venusian atmosphere is incredibly dense: it is 93 times more massive and the pressure here is about 92 times that on Earth. On Earth, this pressure is found in the depths of the oceans, at a depth of about one kilometre. Unfortunately, this has prevented probes entering Venus’ atmosphere and probes directed towards the surface from lasting more than an hour or two. Venyera 13 lasted the longest on Venus, operating on the planet’s surface for 127 minutes. The only spacecraft currently monitoring Venus is the Japanese Akacuki (Dawn) spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since 2015.

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme, which is built around the challenges of future space missions, has 17 projects, several of which have a good chance of progressing to the concept stage. One of these projects is the Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration, or BREEZE, a space probe inspired by rays that would fly in the atmosphere of Venus and take measurements.

The BREEZE programme is run at the State University of New York, where they are working on a special probe that looks like a flying stingray. The special drone would fly in Venus’s atmosphere at an altitude of 60-70 kilometres below the clouds of acid clouds that cover the surface, riding the prevailing wind currents and orbiting the planet every 4-6 days. BREEZE can manoeuvre by changing the shape and volume of its inflatable wings. All the probe’s actuators will be housed inside, protected from the corrosive atmosphere. The internal structure of BREEZE follows the structure of the stingray skeleton system, with the movement of the shape-changing wings distributed between several smaller motors, reducing the chance of failure.

The special stingray drone will also be equipped with a range of instruments to make measurements more efficient: on board BREEZE will be a nephelometer to measure the turbidity of gases, a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field, a mass spectrometer, radar and a camera. The main mission of the drone would be to study the weather and atmosphere, and to map Venus’ magnetic field and surface, and would communicate with Earth via a module in orbit around Venus.

Under the NIAC programme, researchers will work on selected projects, including BREEZE, for a further two years, with NASA funding of $600,000, and after the two-year development period, they will evaluate which project will ultimately succeed and whether the stingray launcher envisioned in BREEZE will ever reach Venus.


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