NASA mulls plan to explore Venus with 'Cloud City'

At 800 degrees Fahrenheit, Venus isn't a hospitable place to land, but some NASA scientists are proposing to study the atmosphere from habitable dirigibles.

NASA/AP
The northern hemisphere of Venus is displayed in this global view of the planet's surface. This image was produced at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Multimission Image Processing Laboratory, NASA, and is a single frame from a video released at the October 29, 1991 JPL news conference.

It’s been done in “Star Wars” – living at a planet by floating above it. Now NASA researchers have proposed the concept in real life.

And the planet they have in mind is not so far, far away.

It’s actually Earth’s closest neighbor, Venus.

Some scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration propose sending people there to help study the atmosphere while flying among the clouds in a dirigible.

Although Venus isn’t a hospitable place to land, the scientists make a case that the planet should be part of humanity’s future in space.

"The atmosphere of Venus is an exciting destination for both further scientific study and future human exploration,” says Christopher Jones of NASA’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate, in a summary document shared by the space agency. “The environment at 50 km [about 31 miles above the surface] is relatively benign, with similar pressure, density, gravity, and radiation protection to the surface of Earth.”

Mr. Jones describes the mission as rich in atmospheric research, but also as “part of a multi-phase campaign to explore and potentially settle Venus.”

Settle Venus? Where ground temperatures are currently in excess of 800 degrees Fahrenheit?

OK, this is where the analogy to Cloud City in the Star Wars movies comes in.

In "The Empire Strikes Back," Cloud City was suspended above the planet Bespin, and film audiences suspended their disbelief as city leader Lando Calrissian (Billie Dee Williams) gave a hard time to interstellar jet jockey Han Solo (Harrison Ford).

In real life, many planetary scientists embrace the notion that humans should ultimately live, not just explore, in places beyond Earth.  The goal encompasses the quest to go to Mars, discover Earth-like planets in other solar systems, and to develop ultra-fast spaceships.

But it also could include colonization of Venusian skies.

“Eventually, a short duration human mission would allow us to gain experience having humans live at another world, with the hope that it would someday be possible to live in the atmosphere permanently," Jones says.

There’s even a YouTube video from the NASA researchers, which hints at this possibility in an after-the-credits closing sequence.

The project is named HAVOC, which stands for High Altitude Venus Operational Concept.

Put down your light sabers for a moment, though.

The reality is that, for now, this project doesn’t have any formal go-ahead.

“There’s no plan to fund it,” emphasizes Michael Finneran, a spokesman for NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Rumors of HAVOC’s momentum have been exaggerated in recent days by headlines implying that it’s on NASA’s drawing board. In reality, a lengthy process of planning, review, and support-building would be needed to push HAVOC forward alongside existing goals like capturing an asteroid or preparing for a manned mission to Mars.

Backers of the idea of the manned mission to Venus see it as a potential proving ground for technologies needed for a Mars journey. (The Venus mission is shorter and avoids the complications of landing on a planet and launching from it for a return flight.)

Still, the Venus mission wouldn’t be cheap and NASA already has tough financial choices to make.

And a Venus venture would come with its own technical challenges, including protecting things like solar panels from the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere.

Another hurdle would be inflating the airship in the first place. The video shows how this might occur, with a parachute putting on some brakes as the dirigible begins to unfurl from a hurtling spacecraft. The parachute drops away, and the airship stops its descent as it inflates. After robotic missions to test key technologies, an initial human-crewed mission might last 30 days.

That’s the scenario outlined by the NASA researchers in their feasibility study.

Will it happen? We’ll see.

NASA spokesman Mr. Finneran says agency researchers do lots of outside-the-box thinking about potential projects. Many of their proposals just gather dust, but some can take flight.

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