In light of renewed scientific interest in the planet, NASA is working toward an aerial drone that could survive in the harsh upper atmosphere of Venus, according to Science Alert. Now, the agency has taken a first step toward this goal, awarding a contract to Colorado-based Black Swift Technologies, for an aerial vehicle to carry out atmospheric observations on Venus.

According to their CEO, Jack Elston:

“Black Swift Technologies has provided aerial solutions for wild land fires, volcanic observations, tornadoes, and hurricanes — some of the most extreme phenomena on Earth. This mission is a natural extension of our focus, only now we are concentrating on the extreme conditions of Venus.”

Recent climate models have suggested that, like Mars, much of the surface of Venus may have once been covered by water, in the form of a shallow ocean that could have existed 2 billion years ago. Eventually, the planet underwent a runaway Greenhouse Effect that led to the searing hot temperatures it is known for today.

Another recent study, which included NASA scientists, suggested microbial life may exist in cloud tops on Venus. In an interview with the Daily Camera, Elston explained:

“They’re looking for vehicles to explore just above the cloud layer. The pressure and temperatures are similar to what you’d find on Earth, so it could be a good environment for looking for evidence of life. The winds in the upper atmosphere of Venus are incredibly strong, which creates design challenges.”

The winds reach speeds of 220 miles (360 km) per hour in the upper layer of the atmosphere, which is denser and hotter than that of Earth. BST plans to use these winds to help the drone fly while requiring as little electricity as possible, using a technique called “dynamic soaring,” which takes advantage of wind shear to create lift and velocity.  Small aircraft and seabirds on long migrations use dynamic soaring on Earth.

They have been given a six-month initial contract, including a grant of $125,000 from the federal Small Business Innovation Research program. After that period, the company will submit its plans, and if approved by NASA, would be given a second-phase contract.

The surface temperature of Venus is the hottest in the solar system, at 873 degrees Fahrenheit (467 C). However, at 30 to 40 miles (50 to 65 kilometers) above the surface, temperatures and atmospheric pressure are comparable to Earth. This means that the planet’s upper atmosphere is one of a handful of places in the solar system with conditions most similar to Earth, and therefore a strong candidate for the existence of life.

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