Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Cloud Tops of Venus

Of all the solid worlds in the Solar System, Venus has to be the worst place to settle a surface colony. The average surface temperature is 462 degrees Celsius, the air pressure is 90 times that of Earth, and the atmosphere consists almost solely of carbon dioxide. The sulfuric acids clouds only add to the already hellish conditions. Even the most hardened landers sent there so far, the Russian Venera probes, lasted only a few hours before being destroyed. It seems that a surface colony is out of the question for humans.

But what about high up in the atmosphere?

At an altitude of around 53 kilometres, right at the cloud tops, the air pressure and temperature is much like that at Earth's surface. The air is not breathable, and there would still be the sulfuric acid clouds to deal with at times, but it is more than possible to construct suitable floating habitats for that region with our current technology. And because air we breath is much lighter than the atmosphere of Venus it makes an ideal lifting gas, much like helium does in our atmosphere. Some type of airship would be ideal as humans could live directly inside the aircraft's 'balloon'. It would make for a very spacious habitat. Something similar was proposed by Russia back in the 1970s, so this sort of thing has been discussed for decades.  

Russian idea for floating Venus colonies
It is plausible, affordable, and something that would be essential to diversify our habitats, and the lessons learnt would be invaluable when making colonisation attempts high in other atmospheres, such as those of gas giants.

A recent NASA proposal for airship colonies on Venus

Despite the extreme conditions on Venus, there is possibly some evidence that life of some sort may be down there. A Russian researcher has suggested that the Venera 13 lander photographed lifeforms that were disturbed by the lander's touchdown. Further lander missions should be sent to investigate his claims, and it seems such a mission could happen in the 2020s. I've recently discovered that Russia is planning to send a rover to Venus during that decade. I will be watching with great interest.