The soil of Venus photographed by Venera 13 (USSR)
On March 1, 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 probe sent the image below these lines. She had just landed in the hell of Venus and would die two hours and seven minutes later, rendered useless by the demonic temperatures of the planet. Now, a team of scientists have created an electronic system that would have survived for many months: a radio on a chip that could be vital to the future of our planet.
Apart from several photos and the first sound recorded on a planet in the solar system, the data collected by the Venera 13 probe in those 127 minutes show that it endured a temperature of 457 degrees Celsius while an atmospheric pressure of 89 terrestrial atmospheres crushed it against the surface. .
It was a great achievement for its creators, who knew that it would not last much longer. In fact, the Venera 13 exceeded its initial estimate of just over thirty minutes. In the 70s and 80s the materials necessary for electronics to survive on this infernal planet did not exist. This is exactly what the electronics engineer at the University of Arkansas Alan Mantooth, together with Carl-Mikael Zetterling and Ana Rusu, both engineers from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, Sweden, want to solve with their Vulcan II radio system. In an article brilliantly titled ‘The radio we can send to hell’ published in the IEEE Spectrum magazine, the inventors claim that Vulcan II will be able to survive on Venus “for months and years”, constantly transmitting information to Earth.
This would allow a long-duration exploration of a rover similar to NASA’s Curiosity or Perseverance. Although it may seem strange, such a mission could prove vital to the survival of life on our planet. At first glance it seems that we have not lost anything on Venus and we cannot colonize it either, but this demonic twin of Earth, 108 million kilometers from the Sun, holds important clues about our possible future.
How the Vulcan II works
The secret of Vulcan II is in the alloy used in its manufacture, a mixture of silicon and carbon called silicon carbide (SiC or Silicon Carbide in English). The alloy is not new. It was discovered in 1895 and has been used for years in various industries that require electronic components to withstand extreme temperatures. Although a silicon chip would not melt at 470 ° C – the melting point of silicon is 1,440 ° C – it stops working for several reasons that silicon carbide avoids.
Until recently, it was very difficult to get SiC wafers of the size necessary to create complex ICs like the Vulcan II. But now, say its inventors, we have reached the point where we can use it to build chips that have the functions necessary to support a mission on Venus.
In their article, the engineers affirm the unique properties of SiC for a chip to function at Venusian temperatures and pressures. The first, they point out, is the critical force of the electric field, the point at which a material begins to conduct electricity in an uncontrolled way. In the case of a SiC chip it is ten times higher than a normal one, opening the door to smaller chips that can operate at the voltages necessary to operate on Venus. The second fundamental property is its extremely high thermal conductivity, which means that the heat generated can be dissipated with a speed only equaled by diamond. Thus, the Vulcan II can maintain a low operating temperature even using a passive radiator.
Finally, there is the low intrinsic concentration of thermal charge carriers at room temperature. This low concentration prevents the increase in temperature from interfering with the flow of electrons. It is the most important property of the three, they say, so that the Vulcan II chip can function on the surface of this planet.
The Swedish-American team has built 40 different circuits so far, they claim. And although they remember that they have only tested them at 500 degrees Celsius for only two weeks, they point to the studies of the NASA Glenn Research Center, which have subjected other circuits to the conditions of Venus for 60 days in their simulation chamber of the Venusian environment.
Why do we have to go to Venus
If you are wondering why hundreds of millions should be spent going to such an inhospitable place as Venus if we cannot colonize or exploit it for raw materials, the answer is right here on Earth.
Venus is considered our twin planet, with a very similar size and gravity. In the past, scientists suspect that it could have had oceans of water and a terrestrial-like atmosphere instead of being a nightmare with impossible temperatures and a carbon dioxide atmosphere with clouds of sulfuric acid that would destroy almost any form of terrestrial life. in seconds (I say almost because there is a possibility of extreme microscopic life).
For science, understanding Venus is vital to understanding Earth and its possible future. Answering questions like what events precipitated the Venus shift and what chemical processes are happening in its atmosphere will give us clues as to what to expect here and what to watch out for. In fact, Venus has already been the key to discovering and understanding phenomena such as the greenhouse effect produced by the emission of CO2 – which is contributing to the global temperature rise decade after decade – or the destruction of the ozone layer that filters radiation. ultraviolet that would destroy life on Earth.