Venus is the second-closest planet to the Sun and at that, it’s not a welcoming place to visit due to the tremendous amount of high pressure on its surface and its hellish temperature.
But that won’t stop us from exploring the planet which was thought to be similar to Earth in its infancy but got its atmosphere stripped away by the strong solar winds.
With so many challenges facing any crewed mission to the hellish world, we are certainly utilizing robots and there are about three upcoming missions to visit the planet by both NASA and the European Space Agency, ESA.
The European space agency revealed information about how it will test and prepare its EnVision craft for the planet’s unwelcoming conditions.
According to the plan, the EnVision spacecraft will enter Venus’ orbit in order to gather data on the planet’s atmosphere. While that might seem simple, it’s certainly going to be a challenging task to complete.
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In order to get into this position, it will perform an aerobraking maneuver which will reduce its orbit by brushing along the top of the planet’s atmosphere. Doing this delicate process is also used by spacecraft entering orbit around Mars even though the case of Venus will be harder due to the planet’s powerful gravitational pull.
“EnVision as currently conceived cannot take place without this lengthy phase of aerobraking,” EnVision study manager Thomas Voirin explained in a statement.
“The spacecraft will be injected into Venus orbit at a very high altitude, at approximately 250,000km, then we need to get down to a 500km altitude polar orbit for science operations. Flying on an Ariane 62, we cannot afford all the extra propellant it would take to lower our orbit. Instead, we will slow ourselves down through repeated passes through the upper atmosphere of Venus, coming as low as 130 km from the surface.”
That won’t be the only challenge. The other one will come in form of atomic oxygen which is an atmospheric component that can erode materials. The top of the Venus atmosphere has a significant amount of atomic oxygen which will eat away the spacecraft components as it passes through while performing the aerobraking maneuver.
In order to see if the spacecraft will be capable of the aforementioned difficulties it will face in Venus’ orbit, samples are being exposed to atomic oxygen in an ESA technical facility in the Netherlands called the Low Earth Orbit Facility or LEOX.
The Atomic Oxygen thing is also an issue in low Earth orbit which is why the facility has experience with it in the first place.
In order to conduct the test, a vacuum chamber is set up and will have molecular oxygen pumped into it. Then a laser is fired to generate atomic oxygen, and materials and coating can be left in the chamber in order to check if they will be corroded.
“We want to check that these parts are resistant to being eroded, and also maintain their optical properties – meaning they do not degrade or darken, which might have knock-on effects in terms of their thermal behavior because we have delicate scientific instruments that must maintain a set temperature,” Voirin explained. “We also need to avoid flaking or outgassing, which lead to contamination.”
The EnVision mission is scheduled to launch in 2031 at the earliest. So there’s still a lot of time to test out the materials.
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