NASA has announced some of the out-there futuristic mission concepts it plans to study in its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, including a stunning plan to explore Venus using bird-like drones which would swoop and soar through the thick Venusian atmosphere.
The concept, called Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration or BREEZE, is one of seventeen visionary projects selected for further study under the program. BREEZE has been selected for a Phase II grant, meaning the researchers will receive funding to continue studying the concept for another two years. “NASA’s mission to explore the universe requires new technologies and new ways of doing things,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, in a statement. “Studying these creative ideas is the first step to turn science fiction into science fact.”
The idea for BREEZE is to build drone explorers which use inflatable structures and take inspiration from nature for the form. As wacky as the idea might sound, it actually makes a lot of sense given the conditions on Venus. Venus has thick clouds that obscure views of the surface from orbit, so explorers need to get below the clouds to get a good view of the planet. However, the pressures on the surface are immense, as are the temperatures, so previous probes have only lasted a few minutes on the surface. The thick atmosphere is full of sulfuric acid clouds, so it’s not exactly a friendly environment either, but it could be suitable for a craft that glides along the strong winds there.
“BREEZE will navigate the atmosphere at altitudes between 50-60 km, riding zonal winds and overcoming the meridional winds to circumnavigate the planet every 4-6 days,” BREEZE researcher Javid Bayandor explained in a statement. “BREEZE’s scientific payload of a nephelometer, anemometer, magnetometer, a mass spectrometer, THEMIS, synthetic aperture RADAR, and visible light camera will enable controllable selection of dispersed or repeated location sample collection for atmospheric and geographic studies. These studies include tracking weather patterns, determining atmospheric constituents, mapping Venusian magnetic field, and creating detailed surface scans.”
You can see a full list of the concepts being studied for NIAC 2022 on NASA’s website.