One of the most exciting aspects of the current era of space exploration (Space Age 2.0) is how time-honored ideas are finally being realized. Some of the more well-known examples include retrievable and reusable rockets, retrieval at sea, mid-air retrieval, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rockets, and kinetic launch systems. In addition, there are also efforts to develop propulsion systems that do not rely on conventional propellants. This technology offers many advantages, including lower mass and improved energy efficiency, ultimately leading to lower costs.
On June 10th, 2023, an all-electrical propulsion system for satellites (the IVO Quantum Drive) will fly to space for the first time. The system was built by North Dakota-based wireless power company IVO, Ltd., and will serve as a testbed for an alternative theory of inertia that could have applications for propulsion. The engine will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of a dedicated rideshare (Transporter 8) hosted by commercial partner Rogue Space Systems. If the technology is validated, the Quantum Drive could trigger a revolution in commercial space and beyond. And if not, then we can relax knowing that the laws of physics are still the laws of physics!
Sending a lander to Venus presents several huge engineering problems. Granted, we’d get a break from the nail-biting entry, descent and landing, since Venus’ atmosphere is so thick, a lander would settle gently to the surface like a stone settles in water — no sky cranes or retrorockets required.
But the rest of the endeavor is fraught with challenges. The average temperature at the surface is 455 degrees C (850 F), hot enough to melt lead. The mix of chemicals that make up the atmosphere, such as sulfuric acid, is corrosive to most metals. And the crushing atmospheric pressure is roughly equivalent to being 1,500 meters (5,000 ft) under water. These extreme environmental conditions are where metals and electronics go to die; therefore, the few Venus lander missions that have made it to the surface — like the Soviet Venera missions — only lasted two hours or less. Any future landers or rovers will need to have nearly super-hero-type characteristics to endure on the surface of Earth’s evil twin.
But there’s one additional challenge that might be close to being solved: creating batteries that can operate long enough in Venus’ hellish conditions to make a lander mission worth the effort.