Global Aerospace Corporation announced today that it has won a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) award to develop a revolutionary system architecture for exploration of planetary atmospheres and surfaces from atmospheric altitudes. This innovative system architecture relies upon the use of Directed Aerial Robot Explorers (DARE), which essentially are autonomous balloons with capabilities to alter their flight paths and deploy swarms of miniature probes over multiple areas.
Exploration of planets from balloons offers a number of advantages over observations from satellites. Flying at a much lower altitude, cameras on balloons can make pictures of the surface with a resolution that is a hundred times better than that of the same cameras on a satellite. Balloon instruments and probes deployed from balloons can make direct measurements in the atmosphere and on the surface, while satellite observations rely on indirect measurements, which are less accurate.
The DAREs would be able to steer in the atmospheric winds and alter their flight paths using the innovative device being developed by Global Aerospace Corporation. The device is a wing hanging on its side on a tether below the balloon. The wing generates a lift force that can be controlled to nudge the balloon system in the desired direction. Scientists would be able to steer DAREs to get a better view of the surface at future spacecraft landing sites, to study geological formations, to overfly atmospheric phenomena, or to revisit the sites where probes were previously deployed to gather the data collected by the probes.
The micro probes deployed from DAREs would study the atmosphere, roam on the surface and penetrate into subsurface, while performing a multitude of tasks, such as chemical, biological, meteorological, or thermal analyses, high-resolution imaging, measuring seismic activity, etc. The data would be relayed in real time to the overflying DARE, processed or temporarily stored onboard, and then relayed to the orbiter. This architecture will enable low-cost, low-energy, long-term global exploration of planetary atmospheres and surfaces.
Seven bodies in the Solar System, besides Earth, - Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Titan (a moon of Saturn), have atmospheres that can support balloon flight. The only practical balloon designs for the Outer Planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) are the Montgolfier (or hot-air) balloons that use the heated gas of the atmosphere to achieve buoyancy, since their atmospheres consist mainly of hydrogen and there is no gas lighter than hydrogen to provide buoyancy. Light-gas balloons that use a gas lighter than the ambient atmosphere (usually hydrogen or helium) to achieve buoyancy are practical for Venus, Mars and Titan.
The added ability to alter the flight path in the atmosphere and to deploy the micro probes would vastly expand the capabilities of planetary balloons and make possible breakthrough observations that are not feasible with any other platform.