JPL’s technology development work on planetary balloons and aerobots is housed in the Aerobot Laboratory. This is primarily an assembly and checkout facility, with experimental flight testing occurring in a variety of off-lab locations.
Current work is focused on three main applications:
Past research efforts have included Mars balloons, both helium superpressure and solar Montgolfiere concepts, and altitude cycling Venus balloons based on phase-change buoyancy fluids.
- Prototype design, fabrication and testing of a Venus cloud-level balloon (55 km altitude) that can carry a 100 kg payload for up to 1 month. This is a spherical helium superpressure balloon that is Teflon-coated to withstand the sulfuric acid aerosols present in the Venusian clouds.
- Development of autonomy technology for use in a future Titan balloon mission. Several autonomy technologies are under development including automatic flight controls, navigation and localization, image-based motion estimation, hazard avoidance and safing, and surface sample acquisition. JPL conducts flight test experiments in the local Mojave Desert using a blimp testbed that features the software and sensor systems required for autonomous operations.
- Titan Montgolfiere balloon design, fabrication and testing. This hot-air balloon concept utilizes the waste heat from the electricity-producing radioisotope power system to generate buoyancy and enable long duration flight at Titan. Key research topics include cryogenic balloon materials, thermodynamic analysis and modeling, and altitude control via buoyancy modulation.
The aerobot research work is led out of the Robotics section (347) but involves personnel from across the laboratory due to the inherently cross-disciplinary nature of the technology.