Venus is an important destination for future space exploration endeavors. However, it presents a unique set of challenges. Though its internal geology is similar to Earth’s, its surface is hot enough to melt lead and is covered with craters, volcanoes, mountains, and lava plains.
The atmosphere of Venus is primarily carbon dioxide with thick clouds of sulfuric acid that completely cover the entire planet. The atmosphere traps the small amount of energy from the sun that reaches the surface along with the heat the planet itself releases. This greenhouse effect has made the surface and lower atmosphere of Venus one of the hottest places in the solar system.
The upper atmosphere of Venus, with similar pressure, density, gravity, and radiation protection to that of the surface of the earth, is relatively benign at 50 km. A lighter-than-air vehicle could carry either a host of instruments and probes, or a habitat and ascent vehicle for a crew of two astronauts to explore Venus for up to a month. Such a mission would require less time to complete than a crewed Mars mission.
A recent internal NASA study of a High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) led to the development of an evolutionary program for the exploration of Venus, with focus on the mission architecture and vehicle concept for a 30 day crewed mission into Venus’s atmosphere. This project is no longer active.
Key technical challenges for the mission include performing the aerocapture maneuvers at Venus and Earth, inserting and inflating the airship at Venus, and protecting the solar panels and structure from the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere. With advances in technology and further refinement of the concept, missions to the Venusian atmosphere can expand humanity’s future in space.