It’s looking more and more like the future of space exploration could involve drones in a big way.
We’ve already seen it here on Earth, where all kinds of flying drones are used by all kinds of people for all kinds of things. Drones are particularly useful in resource development, exploration, imaging, and remote sensing.
Could the future see drones flying around in the thin Martian atmosphere?
In the coming decades, NASA and other space agencies hope to mount some ambitious missions to other planets in our Solar System. In addition to studying Mars and the outer Solar System in greater detail, NASA intends to send a mission to Venus to learn more about the planet’s past. This will include studying Venus’ upper atmosphere to determine if the planet once had liquid water (and maybe even life) on its surface.
In order to tackle this daunting challenge, NASA recently partnered with Black Swift Technologies – a Boulder-based company specializing in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – to build a drone that could survive in Venus’ upper atmosphere. This will be no easy task, but if their designs should prove equal to the task, NASA will be awarding the company a lucrative contract for a Venus aerial drone.
In recent years, NASA has taken a renewed interest in Venus, thanks to climate models that have indicated that it (much like Mars) may have also had liquid water on its surface at one time. This would have likely consisted of a shallow ocean that covered much of the planet’s surface roughly 2 billion years ago, before the planet suffered a runaway Greenhouse Effect that left it the hot and hellish world it is today.
In addition, a recent study – which included scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory – indicated that there could be microbial life in Venus’ cloud tops. As such, there is considerable motivation to send aerial platforms to Venus that would be capable of studying Venus’ cloud tops and determining if there are any traces of organic life or indications of the planet’s past surface water there.
As Jack Elston, the co-founded of Black Swift Technologies, explained in an interview with the Daily Camera:
“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 challenge.”
To meet this challenge, the company intends to create a drone that will use these strong winds to keep the craft aloft while reducing the amount of electricity it needs. So far, NASA has awarded an initial six-month contract to the company to design a drone and provided specifications on what it needs. This contract included a $125,000 grant by the federal governments’ Small Business Innovation Research program.
This program aims to encourage “domestic small businesses to engage in Federal Research/Research and Development (R/R&D) that has the potential for commercialization.” The company hopes to use some of this grant money to take on more staff and build a drone that NASA would be confident about sending int Venus’ upper atmosphere, where conditions are particularly challenging.
As Elston explained to Universe Today via email, these challenges represent an opportunity for innovation:
“Our project centers around a unique aircraft and method for harvesting energy from Venus’s upper atmosphere that doesn’t require additional sources of energy for propulsion. Our experience working on unmanned aircraft systems that interact with severe convective storms on Earth will hopefully provide a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion for how best to explore this turbulent environment. Additionally, the work we do will help inform better designs of our own aircraft and should lead to longer observation times and more robust aircraft to observe everything from volcanic plumes to hurricanes.”
At the end of the six month period, Black Swift will present its concept to NASA for approval. “If they like what we’ve come up with, they’ll fund another two-year project to build prototypes,” said Elston. “That second-phase contract is expected to be worth $750,000.”
This is not the first time that Black Swift has partnered with NASA to created unmanned aerial vehicles to study harsh environments. Last year, the company was awarded a second phase contract worth $875,000 to build a drone that could monitor the temperature, gas levels, winds and pressure levels inside the volcanoes of Costa Rica. After a series of test flights, the drone is expected to be deployed to Hawaii, where it will study the geothermal activity occurring there.
All of these missions aim to reach Venus and brave its harsh conditions in order to determine whether or not “Earth’s Sister Planet” was once a more habitable planet, and how it evolved over time to become the hot and hellish place it is today.
With its dense and hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere, Titan has been a subject of interest for many decades. And with the success of the Cassini-Huygens mission, which began exploring Saturn and its system of moons back in 2004, there are many proposals on the table for follow-up missions that would explore the surface of Titan and its methane seas in greater depth.
The challenges that this presents have led to some rather novel ideas, ranging from balloons and landers to floating drones and submarines. But it is the proposal for a “Dragonfly” drone by researchers at NASA’s JHUAPL that seems particularly adventurous. This eight-bladed drone would be capable of vertical-takeoff and landing (VTOL), enabling it to explore both the atmosphere and the surface of Titan in the coming decades.
Such a mission, as Turtle explained to Universe Today via email, is both timely and necessary. Not only would it build on many recent developments in robotic explorers (such as the Curiosity rover and the Cassini orbiter); but on Titan, there is simply no shortage of opportunities for scientific research. As she put it:
“Titan’s an ocean world with a unique twist, which is the rich and complex organic chemistry occurring in its atmosphere and on its surface. This combination makes Titan a particularly good target for studying planetary habitability. One of the big questions about the development of life is how chemical interactions led to biological processes. Titan’s been doing experiments in prebiotic chemistry for millions of years – timescales that are impossible to reproduce in the lab – and the results of these experiments are there to be collected.”
Their proposal is based in part on previous Decadal Surveys, such as the Campaign Strategy Working Group (CSWG) on Prebiotic Chemistry in the Outer Solar System. This survey emphasized that a mobile aerial vehicle (i.e an airship or a balloon) would well-suited to exploring Titan. Not only is Titan the only known body other than Earth that has a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere – four times as dense as Earth’s – but it’s gravity is also about 1/7th that of Earth’s.
However, balloons and airships would be unable to study Titan’s methane lakes, which are one of the most exciting draws as far as research into prebiotic chemistry goes. What’s more, an aerial vehicle would not be able to conduct in-situ chemical analysis of the surface, much like what the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity) have been doing on Mars.
As such, Turtle and her colleagues began looking for a proposal that represented the best of both worlds – i.e. an aerial platform and a lander. This was the genesis of the Dragonfly concept.
“Several different methods have been considered for in-situ aerial exploration of Titan (helicopters, different types of balloons, airplanes),” said Turtle. “Dragonfly takes advantage of the recent developments in multi-rotor aircraft to provide aerial mobility for a lander with a sophisticated payload. Because Dragonfly would be able to travel long distances – a few tens of kilometers at a time, and up to a few hundred kilometers over the course of the mission – it would be possible to make measurements at multiple sites with very different geologic histories.”
The mission is also in keeping with concepts that Turtle and her colleagues – which includes Ralph Lorenz (also from JHUAPL), Melissa Trainer of the Goddard Space Flight Center, and Jason Barnes of University of Idaho – have been exploring for years. In the past, they proposed a mission concept that would combine a Montgolfière-style balloon with a Pathfinder-like lander. Whereas the balloon would explore Titan from a low altitude, the lander would explore the surface up close.
By the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, they had officially unveiled their “Dragonfly” concept, which called for a qaudcopter to conduct both aerial and surface studies. This four-rotor vehicle, it was argued, would be able to take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity to obtain samples and determine surface compositions in multiple geological settings.
In its latest iteration, the Dragonfly incorporates eight rotors (two positioned at each of its four corners) to achieve and maintain flight. Much like the Curiosity and upcoming Mars 2020 rovers, the Dragonfly would be powered by a Multimission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). This system uses the heat generated by decaying plutonium-238 to generate electricity, and can keep a robotic mission going for years.
This design, says Turtle, would offer scientists the ideal in-situ platform for studying Titan’s environment:
“Dragonfly would be able to measure compositional details of different surface materials, which would show how far organic chemistry has progressed in different environments. These measurements could also reveal chemical signatures of water-based life (like that on Earth) or even hydrocarbon-based life, if either were present on Titan. Dragonfly would also study Titan’s atmosphere, surface, and sub-surface to understand current geologic activity, how materials are transported, and the possibility of exchange of organic material between the surface and the interior water ocean.”
This concept incorporates a lot of recent advances in technology, which include modern control electronics and advances in commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs. On top of that, the Dragonfly would do away with chemically-powered retrorockets and could power-up between flights, giving it a potentially much longer lifespan.
“And now is the perfect time,” says Turtle, “because we can build on what we’ve learned from the Cassini-Huygens mission to take the next steps in Titan exploration.”
Currently, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing a similar concept. Known as the Mars Helicopter “Scout”, for use on Mars, this aerial drone is expected to be launched aboard the Mars 2020 mission. In this case, the design calls for two coaxial counter-rotating rotors, which would provide the best thrust-to-weight ratio in Mars’ thin atmosphere.
This sort of VTOL platform could become the mainstay in the coming decades, wherever long-term missions that involve bodies that have atmospheres are called for. Between Mars and Titan, such aerial drones could hop from one area to the next, obtaining samples for in-situ analysis and combining surface studies with atmospheric readings at various altitudes to get a more complete picture of the planet.