Sometime in the next decade or two, a balloon could soar through the clouds of Venus, searching for evidence of life. Or a skimmer that looks like a manta ray might zoom along with the planet’s high-altitude winds, circling Venus in just a few days.
Both ideas received funding earlier this year to help develop the concepts. There’s no guarantee that either will ever fly — only that they’ll get a look.
The balloon would spend several days bobbing between altitudes of about 30 and 40 miles. It would sample the atmosphere below the clouds, and gather as much as a gram of material inside the clouds. Research in recent years has suggested that microscopic organisms could live there, even though the clouds are made of sulfuric acid. The sample container would rocket to a rendezvous with an orbiter for the trip to Earth.
The manta-ray concept is known as BREEZE. It, too, would be an inflatable craft. It would stay at about the same altitudes as the balloon. But it would alter its shape to ride along with the high-level winds. Its instruments would measure the composition of the atmosphere, the planet’s weak magnetic field, and details about the winds. And it would use radar to map the surface — from high above the surface of Venus.
Look for Venus at dawn tomorrow. It’s the brilliant “morning star,” close to the right of the crescent Moon. The fainter planet Mercury is to the lower left, just above the horizon.
Script by Damond Benningfield