Balloons outfitted with innovative steering devices and robot probes could be the future of planetary exploration. Dr. Alexey Pankine, a fellow at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), presented an analysis of balloon applications for planetary science at the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas last month. His study, entitled Directed Aerial Robot Explorers or DARE, is funded by NIAC.
At the center of the DARE concept are balloons that can float in planetary atmospheres for many days. Balloons have long been recognized as low-cost observational platforms and are routinely used in observations of the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1984, two balloons were successfully deployed in the atmosphere of Venus for a short mission. However, what has restrained the wider use of balloons in planetary exploration was the inability to control their paths in strong atmospheric winds. Attaching an engine to a balloon would convert it into an airship and make it too heavy, too power dependent and too expensive to send to another planet or high into the atmosphere.
Faced with this problem, Global Aerospace Corporation has proposed to use an innovative device called the StratoSail® that allows the user to control the path of a planetary balloon. The device is essentially a wing that hangs on a long tether (several kilometers) below the balloon. Strong winds and denser atmosphere at the wing altitude create a sideways lifting force that pulls the entire system across the winds.
Alexey A. Pankine | EurekAlert!
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