Exploring Venus’ Dark Side

Sea rays inspire the design for a radical new spacecraft.

Despite its proximity to Earth, scientists understand relatively little about Venus, especially its so-called “dark side.” But researchers at the University at Buffalo might be much closer to shining a light on the mysterious planet.

They’re designing an innovative spacecraft for NASA outfitted with wings that flap like a sea ray’s pectoral fins, giving it the strength and control to explore the planet’s hostile atmosphere like no current probe can do.

Tackling an inhospitable environment …

As other planets go, Venus is pretty alien. Hurricane-force winds churn clouds of sulfuric acid, while on the surface, blistering temperatures approach 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

On top of that, half the planet is shrouded in nearly endless darkness. That’s because a full day on Venus (the time it takes to completely rotate on its axis) is equal to 243 Earth days. For decades, all of these challenges have posed a puzzle to scientists looking to learn more about the planet.

… through engineering ingenuity

Enter the Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Explorations, or BREEZE. One of 12 revolutionary concepts funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, the craft, with its stingray-like morphing wings, can make efficient use of the high winds in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

“The design will allow for a so-far unattained degree of control for such a spacecraft,” said Javid Bayandor, associate professor of aerospace engineering at UB, director of UB’s CRASH Lab and the project’s principal investigator.

BREEZE would circumnavigate Venus every four to six days, recharging its solar panels on the sunny side to power instruments that take atmospheric samples, track weather patterns, monitor volcanic activity and gather other data.

According to Bayandor, the technology behind the spacecraft could potentially be used to explore other hard-to-access parts of the solar system, such as the atmosphere and oceans of Titan, a moon of Saturn, as well as underwater environments on Earth.