An aerobot is a robotic aerial vehicle that uses buoyancy to provide the lift needed to fly. Such vehicles are essentially balloons with scientific payloads suspended underneath and, optionally, propulsion systems (e.g., propellers) mounted on either the balloon or payload compartment.
Balloons, blimps and airships are commonplace on Earth, but only two such vehicles have ever flown on another planet. In 1985, the Soviet Union's VEGA project successfully flew two small, wind-blown balloons in the upper atmosphere of Venus for two days.
JPL is developing aerobot technology for use in future missions to Mars, Titan and Venus. The different environments at these three worlds dictate the use of different aerobot designs and components, which in turn lead to different kinds of possible missions:
- Mars has only a tenuous carbon dioxide atmosphere, which means that very large, lightweight balloons are required to float even small payloads of a few kilograms. JPL is focused on developing simple, wind-blown balloons that could fly for weeks or months.
- Titan has a very dense but very cold atmosphere comprised mostly of nitrogen gas. JPL is developing both wind-blown and self-propelled aerobot vehicles using cryogenic balloon materials. Payloads of up to a few hundred kilograms are possible for mission durations of 6-12 months.
- Venus has a very dense carbon dioxide atmosphere that is relatively cool at high altitudes but extremely hot near the surface. JPL is developing both wind-blown and self-propelled aerobot vehicles for a variety of mission concepts that either stay high, stay low or traverse the entire atmosphere. Payloads range from tens to hundreds of kilograms in missions lasting days or weeks.
Images illustrate recent and ongoing JPL aerobot-technology-development activities for future missions to all three worlds. Much of the work has focused on suitable balloon construction materials, aerial deployment and inflation technology, and mission concept development and design.