Forbidden Planet

We’ve been to the moon. Mars is easy. But landing on Venus? That’s tough.

Most pictures of the Venus surface are synthetic, like this view of a volcanic region called Eistla, created from Magellan orbital radar data. The SAGE lander would take actual photos from ground level. (NASA/JPL)
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Insulation won’t be enough. Long-duration (weeks-long) landers will require “active” cooling—refrigeration—says planetary scientist Mark Bullock of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who heads the team designing SAGE’s camera. Future Venus landers would basically be Frigidaires, devoting 70 percent or more of their power to staying cool. They will more than likely need multi-stage cooling: fridges within fridges. The only way to achieve that, says Bullock, is with nuclear power.

Other scientists have speculated beyond rovers to Venus aircraft. To investigate how a planet that rotates so slowly can generate such powerful winds, some suggest penetrating the acid clouds with a Teflon-coated helium-filled balloon. Scientists like Geoffrey Landis at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio have proposed sending an autonomous airplane with the rover. Landis points out the advantages of this one-two combination: The airplane would fly in the cooler upper atmosphere, which is friendlier to electronics. If most of the computer brain power were placed on the airplane, it could direct the rover from above.

With these kinds of tools, scientists could really start to unravel the mysteries of Venus: Why the planet doesn’t have plate tectonics, what happened to its water, and the Big Question: Could the same runaway greenhouse effect happen on Earth? It’s still not clear which one of the twin planets is the anomaly, says Smrekar. “We have two end members of [the spectrum of] Earth-like planets, and it will be interesting to see which is more common.”

SAGE may not give us all the answers we want, but if its mission is approved, the spacecraft will literally die trying. The first bytes of data should arrive at mission control—causing the scientists and engineers to erupt in cheers—after the lander has finished its planned work and started to succumb on Mielikki Mons, 24 million miles away. Eventually heat will pierce its inner circuits, kinetic energy will rattle its molecules harder and harder, and hiccups will start to appear in the transmissions.

As Lori Glaze of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, envisions it based on work she’s done on other Venus mission concepts, the lander’s death will not be peaceful—no “Daai-sy, Daaaaai-sy” sign-off, followed by silence. After the batteries shut down, they will continue to bake in the 850-degree heat. Soon after, says Glaze, they will almost certainly explode, and the blast will probably breach the titanium pressure shield around the inner electronics. When the lander stops shuddering, the toxic air will go to work, eating any exposed wires down to the nubs, and the carbon dioxide will bleach any of the lander’s decorations (like American flags). All the metals will corrode, and the supercritical CO2 and acids and ocean-like pressure—all the hellish forces of Venus—will do what they do best, and destroy the lander piece by piece.

Sam Kean is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (Little, Brown, 2010).

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