Inflatable Venus plane may compete for next NASA New Frontiers mission
The hot and hostile surface environment of Venus poses unique challenges to scientific missions to explore the planet. In an effort to deal with these challenges, Northrop Grumman conducted a feasibility study in 2012 of an inflatable propeller-powered aircraft called the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverability Platform (VAMP). The aircraft would fly the skies above Venus at an altitude between 55 and 70 kilometers. According to Space News, Northrop Grumman plans to enter the concept in NASA’s next New Frontiers that is set to begin during the federal government’s 2016 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The winning mission will have to be ready to launch by about 2021.
On Friday, May 15, Northrop Grumman announced the formation of a science advisory board of prominent American and European planetary scientists. The board will be tasked with defining specific scientific goals, measurement requirements, and identifying possible instruments for future VAMP missions. The board will also analyze existing Venus data that may be useful in planning the VAMP mission.
“The board is a community-based, interdisciplinary science forum that the VAMP development team may interact with, ask questions of and request analyses to help resolve design and performance issues during these early stages of the mission’s development,” said Ronald Polidan, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems VAMP Project Scientist. “They will be incredibly helpful in designing the vehicle for maximum science data collection.”
VAMP would be the first application of Northrop Grumman’s family of Lifting Entry/Atmospheric Flight (LEAF) aircraft that could fly the skies of any planetary body with an atmosphere, including Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn’s moon Titan.
The VAMP aircraft would be delivered to Venus by an orbiting spacecraft which would later serve as a communications link between VAMP and Earth. VAMP would inflate outside the atmosphere and its large surface area would help manage the heat loads of atmospheric entry. Vamp will have a wingspan of nearly 150 feet (45.7 m) and a payload capacity of 100 pounds (45.4 kg). VAMP will be able to stay airborne for nearly a year as it studies Venus and its atmosphere by using a combination of powered flight and passive floating.
VAMP will certainly face stiff competition for the $1 billion in funding that NASA is offering for the next New Frontiers mission. Several finalists from the 2011 competition that may return for 2016 include the MoonRiser lunar sample return mission and a Venus lander called the Surface and Atmospheric GeoChemical Explorer. To win, Northrop Grumman will have to convince NASA that they can demonstrate a working prototype within about four years and that VAMP can carry enough scientific instruments to fulfill key science objectives set forth by the most recent decadal survey.
Northrop Grumman is partnering on the project with L. Garde Inc. of Tustin, California, who previously collaborated on a DARPA initiative to create a collapsible, rocket-deployed drone called RAPID EYE. L. Garde built two collapsible wings before the project was cancelled in 2010. The larger of the two wings was about 2 meters long. An operational VAMP prototype would have a 55 meter wingspan.
In addition to the company’s experience during the Rapid Eye project, Northrop Grumman will also draw on the development of the semi-buoyant Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) airship and its long heritage of delta-winged aircraft, from the flying wing of the late 1940s to the B-2 Spirit bomber and the X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.