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To conquer Venus, try a plane with a brain

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CRUSHING atmospheric pressures, fierce winds, baking temperatures and acidic clouds have quickly destroyed every probe or lander ever sent to Venus. So the prospect of emulating the spectacular success of NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Venus might seem bleak. But there is hope. Space scientists in the US believe a solar-powered aircraft could explore the atmosphere of the second rock from the sun, and carry a flying "brain" to control a toughened rover on the ground.

Writing in the latest edition of the journal Acta Astronautica (vol 56, p 750), a team led by Geoffrey Landis of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio says that an autonomous solar-powered aircraft could cruise between different altitudes and locations in Venus's wild atmosphere, making measurements and radar-imaging the surface at 10 times the resolution possible with an orbiting craft. They say this would provide far better data than the Soviet and US probes of the 1970s and 1980s, which were only able to make atmospheric measurements for a short time as they descended to their doom in the planet's violent, corrosive winds.

But the planet's dense atmosphere is ideal for a flying craft. A wing's lift depends directly on the density of the atmosphere and the atmospheric pressure on Venus is about 90 times that of Earth. After being released by an orbiter, the craft's origami-like wings would unfurl from an "aeroshell" (see Graphic). Solar panels on the craft's surface could absorb large amounts of the intense solar energy, powering motors to allow the craft to fly continuously. And the planet's slow rotation, with one day and night on Venus taking 117 Earth days, means a solar flyer could stay on the daylight side indefinitely.

NASA is particularly interested in studying a fast-moving cloud band that stretches around the planet at an altitude of 50 to 75 kilometres. This band is an enigma. Amazingly, it spins 60 times faster than Venus itself, taking only four Earth days to circumnavigate the planet. "We really want to know how solar energy moves that upper atmosphere so very fast," Landis says. By cruising between the cloud base and cloud tops, where the temperature is a moderate 100 °C, a solar flyer could help scientists find out what makes that cloud band tick.

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