16 May 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “The Radio We Could Send to Hell”

To solve this and Venus’s other riddles, we’ll need several very capable robotic landers. But can we build machines—complete with instrumentation, communications, controllability, and mobility—that can survive such a hostile environment not just for hours but for months to years?

We can. Materials technology has advanced enough since the 1960s, when the former Soviet Union began launching its Venera series of landers to Venus, to ensure that the outer hull and mechanics of a future lander will be able to last for months. But what about those tender electronics? Today’s silicon-based systems would not last a day under Venus conditions. (We mean an Earth day, of course. A Venusian day is 243 Earth days.) Even adding active cooling systems might not give them more than an extra 24 hours.

The answer is a semiconductor that combines two plentiful elements, carbon and silicon, in a 1:1 ratio—silicon carbide. SiC can withstand extremely high temperatures and still work just fine. Scientists at the NASA Glenn Research Center have already operated SiC circuits for more than a year at 500°C, demonstrating not only that they can take the heat but can do so over the kinds of lifetimes a Venus lander will need.

Alan Mantooth, Carl-Mikael Zetterling & Ana Rusu

While Mars is the current star of solar system exploration – with a Chinese rover recently landing on the planet, only the second country to manage a successful landing – the true frontier of planetary exploration is Venus, with its hellish environment that can simultaneously melt, crush and corrode incoming probes. But as materials technology advances, a long-term mission on its surface may become an achievable goal – and drive a number of Earth-based advancements as well. Given the high heat tolerance of SiC circuitry, I have to think they could deliver upgraded components for solar probes as well, designed to investigate our star closer and in more detail.

In an artist’s rendering, a future Venus rover gains some power from wind blowing in the planet’s thick atmosphere. Illustration: NoEmotion

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