OSU students contributing to NASA quest to explore Venus

Published: Thursday, August 19, 2021 By: Journal Record Staff

Students from Oklahoma State University are playing a part in the exploration of Venus.

One of the brightest objects in the night sky, Venus is the closest planet in size to Earth, and it has an extremely dense atmosphere. Early astronomers once gazed upon its thick cloud cover and speculated that life must surely be there.

Alas, temperatures on the surface of Venus rise higher than 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

But mankind has always been curious about its celestial neighbor, and a breakthrough was made some 40 years ago when the U.S. spacecraft Magellan documented a volcanic, barren landscape.

Because of its exceedingly hot temperatures, thoughts of surface exploration of Venus were mostly abandoned and NASA turned its attention to Mars, where exploration has been quite successful in recent decades.

Now, as a result of advances in technology and outside-the-box thinking – including some originating in places like Stillwater – scientists are beginning to refocus on Venus.

Danny Bowman, a geophysicist for Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, designed a solar-powered, ultra-high-flying balloon a few years ago that can be outfitted with a special seismometer useful in detecting earthquakes by picking up “infrasound” – sound below the level of human hearing.

After successful tests in California, Sandia and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began looking for places that had multiple earthquakes a day of a smaller scale.

They settled on Oklahoma as the perfect testing ground.

Long range, NASA hopes to take what’s learned in Oklahoma into space to better explore conditions on Venus.

“The earthquake, when it shakes the ground, it acts like a giant speaker. It produces that low-frequency sound,” said Brian Elbing, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at OSU. “The goal here is that we are going to fly a bunch of balloons with these sensors on them. We are trying to get natural earthquakes, so it is going to be a long campaign where we are flying and waiting for earthquakes. If we can detect a weak earthquake here, it will be easy on Venus. Looking at the propagated sound that gets in the atmosphere, we can get a good look at the structure on Venus.”

Elbing and Jamey Jacob, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Unmanned Systems Research Institute, started working with students testing 6-meter balloons. After some initial success, in July they started testing larger balloons, similar to ones that Bowman had been using in California.

OSU is the only university participating in the project.

On the morning of July 20, at the OSU Unmanned Aircraft Flight Station near Glencoe, the OSU and NASA researchers took first steps toward a better understanding of Venus. NASA JPL had three visitors on hand for a launch, including Siddharth Krishnamoorthy, Leo Martire and Michael Pauken, as well as Fransiska Dannemann Dugick from Sandia. After some trial and error and overcoming challenges from Oklahoma winds, the balloon successfully took off. Elbing said it would travel on the wind and land around dusk, most likely in New Mexico or Texas.

“The idea is they are lightweight and balance themselves, so they basically climb to 20 kilometers (over 65,000 feet) in the air and just stay up there all day long until sunset at that elevation,” Elbing said.

The team launched a few more balloons while the visitors from NASA and Sandia were on campus. OSU students described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience to work alongside the top-tier aerospace engineering professionals.

“It is nice to see the information we are learning applied to a real-life situation,” said Taylor Swaim, an OSU engineering graduate student from Tulsa. “It is also nice working alongside professionals. They are where we are trying to go as grad students or undergrad students and are definitely big role models to us.”

Embarking on what will most likely be a decade-long project is exciting, Jacob said. Researchers hope the balloons will prove successful in detecting earthquakes, and, eventually, helping to map the surface of Venus. Since the planet can’t be mapped from the ground, the sky is the best option. And Venus’ Earth-like upper atmosphere is playing to researchers’ advantage.

“So that makes it a much easier atmosphere to work in,” Jacob said. “Rather than be in the really hellish atmosphere that you have down on the surface at 600 degrees Celsius and 90 atmospheres’ worth of pressure, you are going to be relatively balmy, and that is a great environment for operating science payloads and experiments.”

Exploration of Venus is quickly becoming a top priority for NASA. Researchers hope to learn not just about the possibility of sustaining life on Venus, but also to study the effects of climate change on a planet similar to Earth.

“Venus is exhibiting a runaway greenhouse gas scenario where you have a lot of C02 in the atmosphere and cloud cover,” Jacob said. “Venus is a lot hotter in the atmosphere than it should be, just based on the amount of solar radiation that you have coming in. Understanding that helps us understand our own planet a little better and the implications of increasing greenhouse gases on Earth and how that may affect the climate here.”

This story originally ran on the JournalRecord.com. 

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