Paragon Eyes Flying a Balloon Over Venus

Venus hides a wealth of information that could help us better understand Earth and exoplanets. NASA’s JPL is designing mission concepts to survive the planet’s extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressure. This image is a composite of data from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With surface temperatures exceeding 470 degrees C (880 F), Venus has always been a difficult place to explore. The Soviet Union’s most successful lander, Venera 13, survived for only 127 minutes before succumbing to the heat.

Conditions in Venus’ atmosphere are more temperate. Venus’ atmospheric pressure and temperature at an altitude of 65 km (40.4 miles) are similar to those on Earth.

That has NASA considering exploring Venus with aerial vehicles. The space agency recently selected a proposal from Paragon Space Development Corporation to develop a key technology for such a mission under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Paragon’s project couples the company’s robust, extreme temperature flexible/impermeable barrier envelopes with the latest Mechanical Compression Altitude Control Balloon (MC-ACB) technology.

“Ascent and descent are initiated and maintained by modulation of the balloon’s lifting gas density through motorized mechanical compression,” the proposal summary said.

“As the aerobot ascends and descends in accordance with its programmed trajectory, the balloon’s accordion-like segmented envelope leaves the lifting gas volume free to adapt to the variation in atmospheric density associated with the varying altitude,” the summary added.

The technology would allow the aerobot to cope with widely varying conditions in Venus’ atmosphere. While the temperature at 65 km is Earth-like, it rises to a balmy 145 C (293 F) at 40 km.

NASA’s SBIR Phase I award will provide up to $125,000 for six months to develop the technology.

The proposal summary is below.

Variable Altitude Venus Platform
Subtopic Title: Terrestrial Balloons and Planetary Aerial Vehicles

Paragon Space Development Corporation
Tucson, AZ

Principal Investigator
Chad Bower

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

NASA desires 40 to 60+ altitude control range for a Venus aerobot—with the 40 km altitude presenting a significant hurdle for vehicle design due to high (145°C) atmospheric temperature. The Paragon-proposed innovation couples their team’s current advancements in robust, extreme temperature flexible/impermeable barrier envelopes with the latest Mechanical Compression Altitude Control Balloon (MC-ACB) technology.

MC-ACB’s unique planar fabrication protocol is highly conducive to incorporation of the aforementioned extreme temperature structural and gas barrier constituents. MC-ACB is a robust, continuously super-pressurized, rapid altitude control aerobot. Ascent and descent are initiated and maintained by modulation of the balloon’s lifting gas density through motorized mechanical compression.

As the aerobot ascends and descends in accordance with its programmed trajectory, the balloon’s accordion-like segmented envelope leaves the lifting gas volume free to adapt to the variation in atmospheric density associated with the varying altitude.

The number of balloon segments can be adapted to the desired altitude range: A larger number of segments presents a greater ratio of distended to compressed volume, which in turn provides controlled access to the great range of trajectory altitudes sought by NASA.

Potential NASA Applications

Particularly in light of global warming, the MC-ACB’s rapid, accurate mobility provides an ideal Earth-observational platform for surface and atmosphere, as well as for biological systems. The technology could also prove enabling in development of stratospheric balloon-borne observation systems such as suborbital telescopes. The proposed MC-ACB technology will have immediate application in expanding exploration of atmospheric planets and moons.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Applications include long term commercial monitoring of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land masses. The proposed MC-ACB platform and analysis tools can also be applied for a variety of semi-autonomous functions over broad areas, such as a communications platform for cellular services, sensor platforms for military applications, and electronic observation platform for border control authorities.

Duration: 6 months