Imagine we’ve successfully landed a robot on Venus! Nice job… [pause, checks watch] Annnd now it’s dead. Hello fellow carbon-based lifeforms, Ian here for DNews. I want you to imagine building a robot that can land on the surface of Venus. Actually, imagine building a robot that will land on the surface of HELL and you’ll have a better idea of what to expect. Yes, Venus is a toxic hellhole that’s not only hot enough on the surface to melt lead, but the thick carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere has a pressure about 90 times greater than Earth’s. This isn’t very good news for any robots we want to send there to explore the planet and do science. But there IS hope. NASA engineers at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, are developing a new kind of integrated circuit that not only survives the rigors of being in space, it could also allow the delicate electronics inside Venus landers to live 100 times longer than previous efforts.
It’s not like we haven’t tried landing on Venus before. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Soviet Union tried to send a series of 16 spacecraft to Venus as part of the Venera program — which included flybys, atmospheric probes and landers. Of the early landing attempts, Venera 3 to Venera 6 either burned up, crashed or got crushed by Venus’ atmosphere. Even though it got crushed before touchdown, Venera 4 has the historic distinction as being the first probe to transmit data from another planet’s atmosphere in 1967. In 1970, Venera 7 made history as the first ever soft landing on another planet. It sent back 23 minutes of data before dying. After this, the Soviets had more success from Venera 8 — which landed in 1972, returning 50 minutes of data. Venera 9 landed in 1975 and took the first ever black and white photos from another planet’s surface.
Venera 13, in 1981, and 14, in 1982, returned color panoramic views from Venus’ surface, revealing the alien geology and incredibly hazy atmosphere. In 1984, Russia launched the two Vega missions that included landers and atmospheric balloons. The US even gave Venus a go when they parachuted probes to the surface during the 1978 Pioneer Venus mission. One of the probes continued to transmit data an hour after landing on the surface. But all Venus surface missions quickly succumbed to the extreme heat and pressure, most lasting for less than a couple of hours. Venera 13 holds the record, lasting 127 minutes before melting. Although our technology has advanced since this exciting era of Venus exploration, we still don’t have the ability to protect them from the extreme environment for very long. Conventional silicon circuits stop working at high temperatures long before they start to melt. But now, NASA engineers are testing an extremely durable "silicon carbide semiconductor integrated circuit” — it’s a circuit made out of a new silicon mix that continues to function as a circuit should, only at much higher temperatures.
It was originally being developed for use in hot sections of fuel-efficient aircraft. Knowing that they could tolerate temperatures up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, the NASA engineers placed samples of the circuit into the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER). This instrument not only replicates the temperatures found on Venus’ surface, it also applies the same pressures. And after 521 hours of extreme testing, the integrated circuits continued to operate as designed. To use conventional electronics in space, heavy shielding is needed to protect delicate components. If this new circuit technology is used for space robots, I’d imagine that this shielding may not be required, reducing weight, boosting electronics longevity in harsh environments, reducing launch weight and ultimately costs. But the thing that makes this kind of tech development REALLY interesting is the very obvious applications a highly durable integrated circuit has on Earth. Robotics are used in a range of industries and are increasingly being used in extremely hazardous environments — building tougher electronics to boost their operational lives would obviously be a bonus.
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