September 29, 2005
~ Come Fly Away / in My Red Martian Baloon ~

Landers just sit there and rovers move too slow. How about something that literally flies over the surface:

Global Aerospace Corporation of Altadena, CA proposes that the Mars exploration vehicle combining the global reach similar to that of orbiters and high resolution observations enabled by rovers could be a balloon that can be steered in the right direction and that would drop small science packages over the target sites. The concept being developed by the Global Aerospace Corporation is funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

Balloons as planetary explorers is an idea that's been around awhile (I seem to recall plans for a balloon-tethered "snake probe" making the rounds when I was in college more than a decade ago). It's not the concept, it's the implementation, and so far I haven't heard of any of these things going further than paper studies.

Still, it would be awfully neat if they actually managed it.

Posted by scott at September 29, 2005 01:03 PM

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Hmm. By my calculations, a spherical hydrogen-filled mylar balloon, 18.5 m in radius and pressurized to 1 kPa would be able to suspend a Spirit-sized payload at least 1000 meters above the average Martian surface at all times, and even be able to tack on an extra 35 kg of steering and control mechanisms (and extra hydrogen) without running aground.

Another fun thing I decided to research a while ago is the possibility of a permenant Venus skycraft, similar to two balloon probes that were launched a while back, but more durable and capable of generating its own hydrogen gas using sulfuric acid from the clouds below it. To support at least three metric tons of personnel and equipment, and remain suspended above the sulfuric acid clouds (around 70,000 km up), the cloud city would need hydrogen balloons totalling 1.5 million cubic meters in volume. Sadly, that's probably too tall an order right now (The Hindenberg, the largest airship ever built, held a mere 200,000 cubic meters), but someday we could actually build a gas mining town there. And we could name it Bespin...

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on September 30, 2005 03:13 PM

Well, then we build 8 Hindenburgs and viola, you've got your weight requirements, and then some - plus redundancy built in such that one balloon rupture doesn't spell death for the station.

The true questions with this are as follows:

1 - is 3 metric tonnes enough stuff? That's roughly 2 full-size cars - which is not a lot for personnel.
2 - did you really mean 70,000km? or 70,000m? I'm asking because I think the clouds start roughly 50km up and then go to about 75km.
3 - that aside, what would be up that far for the balloons to push against?
4 - could the majordomo have some weird computer thing wrapped around his bald head and covering his ears?

Not that I think it's a bad idea - if you were far enough up that you wouldn't have issues with the sulfuric acid or the lightning (as I remember it, lightning does go both down and up), it'd be neat to have a base that close.

Posted by: ronaprhys on September 30, 2005 05:03 PM

1 - It was enough to support 20 people comfortably on the Hindenberg, but then the Hindenberg never was 300,000 miles away from Earth.

2 - Yes, I really meant 70,000 km. That's how high the acid clouds reach, and getting sulfuric acid all over your city can really ruin your day.

3 - The Venusian atmosphere. See, the atmosphere on Venus is 95 times thicker than the atmosphere on Earth. As a result, the atmosphere on Venus at 70,000 km exerts only a little less pressure than the Martian atmosphere at 1 km. Balloon probes have been suspended at this height in the Venusian atmosphere already, so it's obviously quite possible. In fact, I somewhat overengineered the airship in the calculations, so it can actually fly as high as 80,000 km in case some big acid cloud bank came its way.

4 - I started on that project, but everyone kept calling him "Locutus," so I scrapped it. Kids these days, I swear. Nothing but heathens.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on September 30, 2005 11:05 PM

Bleeeargh. I just realized that I confused the Hindenberg's statistics with the Goodyear Blimp's in the above post.

Okay, back to the drawing board. Yeah, 3 metric tons is hardly enough for a real city, but to get the initial self-supporting colony up there, it would do the trick.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on September 30, 2005 11:13 PM
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