Mars, Venus, Titan - wherever there's air, we can explore by balloon.
- By Joe Pappalardo
- Air & Space magazine, July 2006
(Page 5 of 5)
The metal balloon concept isn't quite ready for prime time. For this year's Discovery mission competition, Hall, Kerzhanovich, and colleagues from JPL and the Universities of California, Michigan, and Wisconsin at Madison submitted a more conservative concept. It uses layers of balloons, one tucked inside the other, and operates only in the upper Venusian atmosphere. An entry vehicle would jettison a folded, 17-foot-diameter balloon, which would inflate under a parachute, detach, and begin floating in Venus' upper atmosphere, protected from the acid clouds by a layer of Teflon film. The balloon would last about a month.
The JPL team finished a prototype of this Venus balloon in February, just in time to make the April deadline for Discovery proposals. If the design is selected this fall, the team will get more money to refine their study. Then, if they get the green light for full funding next year-a long shot, admittedly-their projected launch date to Venus would be the autumn of 2013.
Along with the technical details, a scientific paper by Kerzhanovich's Discovery proposal team includes a stirring vision of what their invention might spawn. "In the not-too-distant future, aerial rovers directly descended from the Venus aerostat could be plying the skies above treacherous landscapes and inhospitable depths of a number of worlds across the Solar System.... Such an aerial vehicle funded on a Discovery-class budget would herald a new era in planetary exploration."
The aerobot researchers are well aware that they've got a lot of hard engineering to do first. And there's always that frustrating Catch-22 of the space business: You can't fly until you're proven, and you can't be proven until you fly. But don't cry for Jack Jones, Jeff Hall, and their crew, whether testing prototype airships in Oregon or over a tabletop in California. They'll tell you themselves: It may not be easy to be a balloonist in a world of rockets and wings, but it sure can be fun.