NASA image of HAVOC above Venus

NASA seriously wants to send humans to Venus now

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Jun 10, 2018, 6:54 PM EDT

Mars and the moon are already at the top of NASA’s prospect list for future human exploration and possibly colonies, but another planet has recently been getting some unexpected attention.

What a group of NASA scientists have proposed is a steampunk-like spacecraft that weighs nearly nothing and would float in the Venusian atmosphere. This High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) would allow astronauts to study the planet at an unprecedented level, in less time than it would take to complete a crewed mission to Mars.

Despite its alluring mythological name, Venus could have come right out of a sci-fi horror movie with its sulfuric clouds and a surface searing enough to melt lead (that’s 864 degrees Fahrenheit) covered in volcanoes, bubbling lava plains, craters and mountains. It seems like one of the most forbidding places anyone could possibly think of studying up close. No wonder it’s a dumping ground on The Expanse.

What the team of scientists who dreamed up HAVOC argue is that Venus is even more accessible than Mars. With a size and mass that almost mirror Earth’s, it can tell us what to expect when searching for life on other worlds that are similar to our planet. Venus is thought to have once had surface oceans teeming with life.

"The atmosphere of Venus is one of the more hospitable locations in space,” NASA Langley mission analyst and HAVOC team leader Chris Jones told NBC Mach.

HAVOC will hover above the sulfur clouds at about 30 miles above the surface, where the atmospheric pressure is comparable to Earth’s and temperatures are a much cooler 170 degrees Fahrenheit and the spacecraft can benefit from incoming solar energy. The NASA engineers believe it could evolve into an aerial colony in the future. That’s right, humans could someday be living in the atmosphere of Venus.

Pulling off this endeavor would require a double launch—one spacecraft carrying the crew, and a robotic cargo ship with a 100-foot-long capsule containing the folded airship, blasted off on NASA’s powerful upcoming Space Launch System (SLS).

When both spacecraft reached Venus’ orbit, the crew would transfer to the cargo capsule, which would then plummet at 16,000 mph, with atmospheric friction and a supersonic parachute slowing its descent to 90 mph until it reached the Venusian atmosphere. The capsule would then shed its outer shell and inflate to something the size of three Boeing 747s. The hundred-day journey would take around half the time it would to land on Mars.

Some technological advancement needs to happen before we get to Venus. Among the tech aspects of this mission that still need to be figured out are how to keep the spacecraft and its solar panels from corroding in that atmospheric sulfuric acid, never mind successfully inserting and inflating the airship on arrival at Venus and performing aerocapture maneuvers on Venus and Earth.

“It opens up a strange, exciting, and even slightly terrifying way to live,” said Jones. "It would be a challenging environment, but one that would bring opportunities we can't even imagine."

(via NBC Mach)