Inflatable airships designed to explore the skies of Venus

Contributed by
Jun 30, 2014, 5:27 PM EDT

Drones and solar-powered ultralight aircraft have already conquered Earth's skies, but if the engineers at Northrop Grumman and L'Garde have anything to say about it, our atmosphere is just the beginning. Someday unmanned aircraft could soar across the skies of such alien worlds as Venus, Mars and Titan. In fact, we have the tech to have these specialized aircraft flying alien skies today. They just have to be built and sent on their way.

The first alien world Northrop Grumman's engineers have set their sights on is Venus, Earth's sun-scorched neighbor. A Venus-specific version of the drone, named VAMP (short for Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform), could be loaded aboard a mothership spacecraft and fired at Venus. Once in the atmosphere, the aircraft could be deployed by inflating its frame with hydrogen. During this process, the mothership would keep the drone aloft, jettisoning it once the frame was fully inflated.

Once on its own, the drone would be capable of both powered flight and drifting on the winds. Power for the engines as well as any instruments could be generated by solar panels during the day and a system that converts heat from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into electricity at night. With a wingspan of 151 feet and a weight of 992 pounds, the drones would be capable of carrying 440 pounds of scientific instrumentation and flying the Venusian skies for as long as a year. Altitudes would range from a daytime maximum height of 43 miles to a nighttime low of 34 miles.

On Venus, the driving winds would aid the aircraft in circumnavigating the planet every six days. A year of data gathered in this way would give us a detailed picture of what forces are at work on Venus from day to day. Gaining this information from other planets and moons across our solar system could also give us insight into what sorts of atmospheres exist across the galaxy. As we hunt for life on alien worlds and even new homes for humanity, the more we know about what lies below the clouds of our own neighboring planets the better.

Northrop Grumman (PDF), via