Articles

Colonizing Venus with Giant Balloons

September 16, 2019


We’ve talked a lot about sending people
to Mars, mostly because sending people to Mars would be really, really cool. But we also talk so much about it because
a lot of people think that Mars is the next place humans will colonize. After all, with just a little technological
help, humans can live on the Martian surface. Sure, we’d need to bring along air and a
place to live and we’d need to figure out how to eat, but that’s all pretty doable
– at least we think it will be soon. But we have another neighbor, who tends to
get ignored in conversations about space colonies: Venus. Venus is usually the closest planet to Earth,
and it’s the easiest other planet to get to, so by those measures it might even be
a better target than Mars. Plus, people call Venus “Earth’s sister”,
which is just really sweet. But people also call Venus “hellish”,
and that fire and brimstone is why we don’t talk a lot about colonizing our dear sister
planet. Landing people on Venus’s surface and having
them live to tell the tale would be a big challenge, much bigger than for Mars. But what if we didn’t need to land on the
surface? What if we could have a floating city in the
Venusian skies? Well, according to some folks at NASA, the
idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Part of why Venus’s surface is so unfriendly
is its temperature. Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect that
traps the energy from sunlight, making the temperature at the surface hot enough to melt
lead. The atmospheric pressure is also around ninety
times what it is here on Earth, and the atmosphere doesn’t even have any oxygen — it’s mostly
carbon dioxide and sulfur. All that makes it hard to even send robots
to Venus’s surface. On Mars, rovers like Opportunity have lasted
for more than a decade. But the most successful mission to land on Venus was Venera 13, which
lasted all of two hours and seven minutes before its electronics burned out and started
corroding. And even THAT was four times longer than it
was expected to last! So, okay, maybe landing people on the surface
is a little impractical, but the intense pressures and temperatures down there could actually
keep people safe in Venus’s skies. Here on Earth, you need to fill a balloon
with something like helium to make it float in the air. The helium floats because it’s a lot less
dense than Earth’s atmosphere is. But Venus has a much denser atmosphere than
Earth does. So if you just filled a balloon with some of Earth’s air, the balloon would
float. With this in mind, some engineers — including
teams from both NASA and the European Space Agency — have proposed sending airships to
Venus that would be sort of like the blimps we use here on Earth. And NASA’s idea, a mission plan known as
HAVOC, would put actual people in those airships. The ship would look and fly like a regular
spaceship on the way there, but once it entered Venus’s atmosphere, it would start to inflate
with compressed air that it brought along from Earth. It would be able to float at around fifty
kilometers above Venus’s surface, where the temperature and atmospheric pressure are
both conveniently similar to Earth’s at sea level. HAVOC’s first stage would be a robotic test
mission to Venus, without any humans on board, to make sure everything goes smoothly and
inflates as it should. Then, assuming the unmanned test goes as planned,
a crew of two people would spend about a month being swept around the skies above Venus’s
equator before detaching a smaller rocket and capsule from the airship and using them
to head home. And if that goes well, we could be on our
way to sending people to Venus for a whole year, or even setting up a permanent colony
in our neighbor’s skies. HAVOC is still hypothetical for now — and
it’ll probably stay that way for a while. But if we ever do decide to set up shop on
Venus, airships would be a great way to do it. And we might not even need to develop
too many brand-new technologies to make it work. So if you’ve ever wanted to live in a floating
city of blimps on another planet … you might get your wish someday. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Space, and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon who help make this show possible. If you want to help us keep making episodes
like this, just go to patreon.com/scishow. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishowspace
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