Starting in the 1960s, Russia’s Venera space program sent a number of probes to Venus in an attempt to learn more about our cosmic neighbor. In 1967, Venera 4 analyzed the Venusian atmosphere. Venera 7, the first probe to land on another planet, touched down on Venus in 1970 and sent back some data before it succumbed, roughly 20 minutes later, to the planet’s intense heat. ESA’s Venus Express recently orbited the planet for eight years, retrieving huge amounts of information about its atmosphere, electric field, and what exists beneath its clouds, but the fact remains that Venus’ surface is simply too hot and oppressive for both human life and mechanical equipment, which creates some obstacles for scientists who want to study it.
Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system, thanks largely to an unstoppable greenhouse effect that has built up a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide that traps in heat and makes the planet a 900°F oven. If that wasn’t enough, the thick clouds frequently send down acid rain. That any probe has ever been able to send data or images before frying on Venus’ surface is miraculous, but the survival of those intrepid devices has always been sadly short-lived.
But that might be about to change.
Cloud Structure in Venusian Atmosphere. Credit: NASA
Researchers at Stanford’s XLab (Extreme Environment Microsystems Laboratory) specialize in figuring out how to persevere over such conditions in order to conduct research in space and in remote or extreme areas on Earth. Their most promising approach for developing mechanical systems that can endure heat, acid rain and other corrosive forces, and radiation is nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is, basically, super small technological systems. Developing and working with nanotech often means manipulating material on the atomic and molecular levels. Nanotechnology is currently in use in medicine for diagnose and location-specific treatment and for developing specialized materials for construction and commercial purposes. The Stanford XLab creates nano-systems comprised of materials that can withstand heat and corrosion while still remaining conductive and able to harvest and transmit data.
The research was inspired largely by car engines, where temperatures can exceed 1,800°F (pistons in particular can be well over 1,000°F), yet the car keeps running and its part don’t melt. That’s largely because of the way engines are arranged, with certain devices including those that measure the engine’s performance positioned far away from the pistons. But what if sensors could go right into the engine and thus, get better data?
3D perspective of Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL
Traditional semiconductors stop functioning at around 572°F—when the metals start to melt, it becomes difficult for the electricity to move. Ateeq Suria, a graduate student working at the XLab, created a thin layer of nanomaterial—about .01% as wide as a human hair—that can create a protective seal around electronics and allow them to function up to 1,112°F. He and others are currently testing these materials at even higher temperatures to get a sense of upper limits and of the material’s lifespan under such conditions. XLab researchers are also developing materials that can withstand cosmic radiation while in transit to cosmic destination. Thus far they’ve created sensors that could withstand 50 years of direct radiation.
These materials may soon be incorporated into spacecraft. In particular, XLab researchers hope they will allow for greater exploration of Venus, which could provide insight into our own world. In the Cosmos episode “The World Set Free,” Neil deGrasse Tyson uses Venus as a cautionary tale about what could happen to earth if we don’t address climate change and carbon dioxide emissions. While Venus’ greenhouse effect wasn’t induced by the activities of humans or any other life form that we know of, studying exactly what happened, how, and when could provide important insight into our own changing atmosphere. “If we can understand the history of Venus, maybe we can understand and positively impact the future evolution of our own habitat,” says XLab principal investigator Debbie Senesky.