An inflatable, propeller powered aircraft

“VAMP” an inflatable, propeller powered aircraft by Northrop Grumman could explore skies around Venus

Northrop Grumman, a US based aerospace and defense firm, aims to develop a concept aircraft that can cruise through the skies around Venus on a multi year mission.

With its unique inflatable and propeller powered aircraft that would be built from light weight materials Northrop Grumman prepares itself to enter NASA’s fourth New Frontiers planetary science competition which is open to international teams across the globe.

Way back in the year 2002, NASA started its New Frontiers program. This program basically includes a series of space exploration missions that is funded by NASA with the main aim of researching several Solar planets that includes Jupiter, Pluto, Venus to name a few. The program concentrates on funding the medium sized missions known as Discovery class, which cannot be completed within a certain cost and time constraints.

With this program NASA encourages the scientists across the globe to participate in the competition and submit their mission proposals for the project. This year’s mission seems to be involved around exploration of Venus.

Currently, two New Frontiers missions that are already being carried out are New Horizons, launched in 2006, it explores the dwarf planet Pluto while Juno spacecraft was launched in 2011 is on a mission of exploring Jupiter. OSIRIS-REx will probably commence its mission to explore and collect samples from asteroid somewhere in 2016.

Though NASA has not yet announced its fourth New Frontiers program; however most probably it would start accepting the submissions from October this year. It seems the mission for the fourth New Frontiers program would be sending probes to Venus to explore the atmosphere around Venus and collect samples as well study the planet’s crust.

Researchers believe that the ambiance around planet Venus is dense and full of sulfur gases; hence the probes exploring Venus would need to study not only the chemical composition but also explore the planets heavy atmosphere and its crust for detailed understanding of the planet. Therefore, it is essential that the probes sent on Venus should reach its lower atmosphere.

Northrop Grumman’s unique spacecraft “The Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform” also known as VAMP, now comes into picture, as this aircraft can fly 50 km above planet Venus’s surface. Thus VAMP seems to be the most apt candidate that can fulfill the required criteria as of now.

The firm is competing for NASA’s $1 billion funding award and has high hopes to be successful in winning the same. In an interview to SpaceNews, Ron Polidan, chief architect of civil systems at Northrop Grumman said: “I think we can be ready”.

Northrop Grumman is very confident that their aircraft would be selected in the competition and if things turn out as anticipated the probable launch date would be 2021. However as per SpaceNews there are a lot of hindrances in achieving this mission.

Says Dan Leone from SpaceNews: “Neither VAMP nor anything like it has ever flown. The closest thing there is to a VAMP prototype today is a pair of ultra-light wings built in 2008 and 2010 by Northrop’s partner L.Garde Inc. of Tustin, California, for a defunct Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative called Rapid Eye.”

Polidan says VAMP would have larger wingspan which is expected to be somewhat 55 meters in length with an estimated speed of 135 mph. Earlier tested aircrafts had a maximum of 2 meters wingspan and it was tested only in wind tunnels and never in flight.

Also it seems the aircraft would carry instruments that would add around 440 lbs (200 kg) weight. These instruments would include cameras and atmospheric samplers. The VAMP would be carried by spacecraft till Venus; however it would enter the orbit and the atmosphere of Venus by itself after getting detached from the spacecraft.

Polidan further said that the technology requires a major progress as of now; however he was very positive that within next four years company will be ready to deliver a final prototype that would prove that VAMP can autonomously fly at the mission with its weight along with all the required instruments mentioned above.

Planet Venus has a surface temperature of around 460 degrees Celcius while the pressure at ground level is somewhere around 90 Earth atmospheres which would be similar to 900 meters underwater on Earth. Now, this seems to be a very inhospitable place and hence sending probes to the planet makes it all the more difficult.

However, Polidan says that if an aircraft manages to hover at an altitude between 50 and 70 km above ground level of the planet, then comparatively the aircraft would have to tackle atmospheric conditions which is similar to that experienced at sea level on Earth. At the mentioned levels even the temperature is about 15 degrees Celsius. Polidan told the SpaceNews:  “Not a whole lot different than flying on Earth.”

Earlier, Russian probes, known as Venera spacecrafts, were sent to Venus in 60s, 70s and 80s; however they were not able to survive the surface of Venus for more than few hours.

Polidan says: ‘If you wanna just sprinkle sulfuric acid all over yourself, that would be more like what you have on Venus.’

In the year 1985 two high altitude balloons called Vega 1 and Vega 2 seems to have found some success in studying some portion of the intriguing atmosphere of Venus and VAMP is being prepared for somewhat similar type of study.

Besides the exploration of Venusian atmosphere there are other missions which includes exploring moon’s south pole, exploring atmosphere of Saturn which will also compete for NASA’s $ 1 billion funding award. Hence in any case whichever mission is picked up in the competition it will be launched in 2021.

NASA’s competition helps scientists to think out of the box and possibly push the boundaries of exploring space……this is the beauty of this program.