When engineers finish bolting the compact car-sized device together in May, it will scorch anything put in it at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, crush it under pressures nearly 100 times that of Earth’s and choke it with carbon dioxide, sulfuric acid and a cocktail of other noxious fumes.
The hellish conditions should emulate the surface of Venus (above), a planet baked of its water and suffocated by greenhouse gases. “Venus used to be like Earth. There’s a lot of lessons for us to learn from it,” said NASA Glenn engineer Rodger Dyson, leader of the Extreme Environment Test Chamber.
The problem with Venusian spacecraft is that they melt in an hour — two if they’re lucky. To know if next-generation landers or rovers could survive, engineers need a test chamber large enough to swallow their hardy robots. NASA’s chamber (below) will be the first one of its kind.
“There’s no data to predict how long materials will survive on the surface,” Dyson said. “We don’t even know what physics and chemistry and mineralogy are occurring there.”
Since that mission, most engineers have considered Venus’ environment too hostile to warrant plopping a nearly $1 billion probe on the surface to listen for earthquakes, analyze soil samples or even watch the weather.
Better cooling and electricity-producing technologies, however, are making planetary scientists reconsider Venus surface missions. In theory, they could enable spacecraft to survive for days, weeks or months instead of hours. (In Earth time, that is; one day on Venus lasts 243 days on Earth.)
“Imagine landing on Earth and trying to learn about it in one hour,” Dyson said. “You’d want to spend at least a day. We’re trying to enable that.”
NASA spoke with Wired about making new Venus surface missions possible, and delivered a sneak peek at its toxic pressure cooker.