Future Tech: Floating colonies on Venus

Could this incredibly hostile planet support future colonies? We take a look…

An artist's impression of a floating city in the atmosphere of Venus.

An artist’s impression of a floating city in the atmosphere of Venus. Image Credit: Adrian Mann

It’s hot, at a searing average temperature of 460 degrees Celsius – some 410 degrees hotter than the muggiest deserts on Earth. Its atmosphere is thick with choking carbon dioxide, laced with poisonous sulphuric acid clouds which hang above a parched desert-like landscape, renewed by the angry eruptions of volcanoes. Without a shadow of a doubt Earth’s evil twin, Venus, with its additional high pressure environment – that has a crushing power 100 times that of Earth – is unfriendly for life. Sending astronauts onto a world that can cook, crush and choke in a few seconds flat and hoping for their survival is ambitious to say the least.

However, according to some – such as the likes of Geoffrey Landis of NASA’s Glenn Research Center – where there’s a will there’s a way. And, in a concept that sees fiction meet science, Venus could be the next go-to destination for colonisation. Forget attempting to touch-down onto the parched, unpredictable surface. Forget trying to pass through the suffocating atmosphere – there’s a new concept, and it’s straight from the pages of futuristic novels. Floating cities akin to levitating island Laputa of Gulliver’s Travels fame or airborne habitats are the new way forward, creating an unusual twist that would see humans living in relatively comfortably in hostile conditions, surfing above the temperate surface.

It’s clear that, in general, Venus is unfit for habitation but some 31 miles above the surface, a different story is told; the dense carbon dioxide atmosphere gives way to an environment similar to our own as it cools down to somewhere between zero and fifty degrees Celsius and the pressure is a more forgiving one bar. However as possible future Venusian dwellers, we might be able to discard our pressurised suits but we still would not be able to wander around quite as comfortably as we do here on Earth – the air is still toxic for us to breathe and the acid that rains down would spell disaster. Yet with a supply of air and the right protection, this is a seemingly small hurdle to overcome.

According to Landis getting an entire city say, the size of New York, to float might seem like a great feat but with the simple premise of buoyancy what might seem like a far-flung idea might actually become feasible. It’s just a question of finding some type of lifting gas, Landis says and that gas is the nitrogen and oxygen that can be found in our very own atmosphere. When the air we breathe meets with carbon dioxide floating occurs, bringing a lifting power just over half that of helium – which we find gives hot air balloons their effortless flight. It’s here that floating colonies have envisioned breathable air domes to lift a city off of the ground, with storage tanks of readily available hydrogen and helium allowing the lifting power to be adjusted. The problems that a Venusian colony seems to pose at first glance seem to gradually disappear as it slowly builds height in the Venus skies.

Further still, hanging above the carbon dioxide laden clouds, solar panels take advantage of the sunlight reflected from the thick atmospheric smog,  providing almost twice the energy Earth can above its cloud layer. The almighty 95 mile per hour winds – that rage around Venus’ circumference and provide this terrestrial planet with its so-called super-rotation – sweep up even more power for these levitating platforms. Venus might be unwelcoming, but with these tricks to avoid its hostility, why shouldn’t we head to the second planet from the Sun?

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