Scientists at the NASA Glenn Research Center are using state-of-the-art technology to develop a computer chip that could withstand Venus’s extreme temperature and pressure to power a rover on its surface.
With a temperature of approximately 872 degrees Fahrenheit (467 degrees Celsius) and atmospheric pressure 90 times that of Earth or the equivalent of being 3,000 feet underwater, Venus burns up and destroys all electronics.
The longest any probe lasted on Venus’s surface while sending back data is 127 minutes, set by the Soviet spacecraft Venera 13 in 1982.
Even though the Soviet Union encased the electronics of later Venera and Vera probes in hermetically sealed chambers and cooled those chambers to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius) before sending them into the second planet’s atmosphere, none survived longer than two hours.
The maximum temperature conventional silicon chips can endure is about 480 degrees Fahrenheit (250 degrees Celsius). In an environment any hotter than that, chips become useless because their semiconductors no longer function.
That now is changing. Researchers are using silicon carbide (SiC) to construct compound semiconductors that can function at significantly higher temperatures and voltages, largely for equipment used by the military and heavy industry.
At NASA Glenn, scientists modified these SiC semiconductors by adding tiny wires that connect a chip’s various components, rendering them capable of withstanding Venus’s temperature and pressure.
They then placed a chip in a chamber known as the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER) that simulated conditions on Venus.
The modified chip lasted nearly 22 days and was still undamaged when the chamber had to be shut down after running for three weeks.
NASA views this experiment as a first of many challenges to be faced in the goal of sending a rover to Venus.
One proposal under consideration is sending a land-sailing rover powered by a sail of solar cells to fuel both movement and the operations of science instruments.
If given the go-ahead and funding by NASA, such a mission would likely launch sometime during the 2020s.