Since 2012, a team at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio has been working on a proposal for a Venus rover that could not only withstand the intense heat and pressures of the second planet’s surface but in fact use those high-density winds to push itself forward through a landsail. For all that time, it’s been unclear exactly how much progress was being made and whether such a rover would ever be built and launched.
The little rover that could, called “Zephyr,” would be the first probe to land on Venus and gather useful surface data since the former Soviet Union’s Venera 14 probe made landfall in 1981, surviving for 57 minutes before it was destroyed by the heat. The planet’s hostile environment (90 times the pressure and close to 500-degrees Celsius on the surface) means we’ve basically relied on orbiters for our best Venus research.
In the best-case scenario, Zephyr would last for about 50 days after it hits the ground. The 400-lb rover would move across the planet’s surface using a 26-foot sail made of airfoil, catching winds gusting through the torrential and violent atmosphere.
Geoffrey Landis, the lead scientist on Zephyr, told Forbes that “the rover’s ‘sail’ is actually rigid, like a vertical wing with solar cells on its surface. But under Venus conditions these cells are very inefficient.” It’s taking a lot of time to develop the kinds of electrical equipment capable of withstanding such high temperatures, although NASA’s efforts have been somewhat successful.
The space agency would want to couple the rover in a $400 million mission that includes a state-of-the-art orbiter that can not only help relay instructions from Earth faster but also collect data on its own from the skies above.
Whether NASA gets the greenlight to move forward with Zephyr remains to be seen.