The Cloud Colonies of Venus
November 24, 2014 3:09 AM   Subscribe

While talk of a moonbase or terraforming Mars has tended to dominate the discussion for the first step in human colonization of the solar system, another possibility exists: floating habitats above the cloud tops of Venus.

"Our air is a lifting gas on Venus with about half the lifting power of helium on Eath. A habitat filled with normal air will float high in the dense Venus atmosphere, The atmospheric pressure there is the same as Earth sea level (1 bar). Temperatures are perfect for Earth life too, just over 0°C.

Also, just as weather balloons naturally rise to their operating level high in our atmosphere - and don't need to be engineered to hold in high pressures, so it works in the same way for our habitats on Venus. They float at a level where the pressure is equal inside and out, and can be of light construction. It is arguably the most hospitable region for humanity in our solar system, outside of Earth itself."
posted by fairmettle (48 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Convincing people to imagine living suspended above the clouds in an atmosphere that would burn your skin off is a lot harder than convincing them to imagine Mars being turned into Earth Junior via terraforming magic.

But I like the discussion on the practicality of it, almost makes it not totally a terrifying concept.
posted by graymouser at 3:44 AM on November 24, 2014 [8 favorites]


Yes, you can find a region within the Venusian atmosphere that's got suitable temperatures, but you've still got a bunch of issues, the first one being the clouds of sulphuric acid, and the second one being a lack of access to the ground. There's other issues like wind speed but I think the main problem is that there's no way for the colony to grow without outside help - with a mars base you have the possibility to gather all you need from the surface. Sure it's pretty hostile but it's not beyond the realms of possibility that a succesful set up could expand and start to colonize the planet. With Venusian balloons, there's no way this is sustainable without outside help - you can't build or repair a new balloon because you can't get materials from the surface.
posted by BigCalm at 3:56 AM on November 24, 2014


Don't know about colonization, but it would make a swell musical, with dashing young tuxedo-ed suitors tap-dancing across platforms far above the clouds of Venus, courting their dashing, silvery ladies, only to miss a step and then AAARRRRGH into CLOUDS OF SULFURIC ACID AND PRESSURES TO CRUSH THEIR SKULLS IN SECONDS

while the orchestra doesn't miss a beat.
posted by Auden at 4:01 AM on November 24, 2014 [7 favorites]


There's other issues like wind speed but I think the main problem is that there's no way for the colony to grow without outside help...

The main problem is figuring out a good reason to build this. Currently there is none. It would be cool to do, yes. But that's not a good enough reason.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:38 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Atmospheric mining! We'd have all the acid we needed!
posted by Happy Dave at 4:52 AM on November 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Because it would be cool" is totally a good enough reason.
posted by Skorgu at 4:55 AM on November 24, 2014 [19 favorites]


This won't happen until all the (car-driving airline-flying meat-eating milk-drinking gadget-discarding seabed-scouring over-populating racka-fracking) people make living on Earth actually worse than living crammed together in a shitty plastic ball of farts hanging over Venus.

And then it still won't happen.
posted by pracowity at 4:55 AM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


With Venusian balloons, there's no way this is sustainable without outside help - you can't build or repair a new balloon because you can't get materials from the surface.

Exactly. Long-term colonization of Mars would be able to use resources on the planet, silicon, nutrients, metals. Once the colony was up and running, it could in theory build almost anything in situ. A balloon on Venus would have to be entirely self-contained, and since it can't operated at 100% perfect efficiency, eventually it will need resupply from off world.
posted by T.D. Strange at 5:21 AM on November 24, 2014


shitty plastic ball of farts

Not just farts. Sulfuric acid, which would be the hypothetical colony's source of water, is H2SO4. Take out H2O and you'll be left with lots of SO2 and O (which presumably would quickly become O2. Sulfur dioxide is that lovely gas you smell when you get that rotten egg odor. And it has to go somewhere...
posted by graymouser at 5:24 AM on November 24, 2014




We're forgetting about the absence of a magnetosphere, which means the cloud-dwellers would also be cooked by radiation.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:46 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I believe that "because it's there" is the greatest and only reason we need.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:52 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


resources on the planet, silicon, nutrients, metals.

Nutrients? What are you, some kind of rock monster?
posted by Segundus at 6:11 AM on November 24, 2014 [5 favorites]


the cloud-dwellers would also be cooked by radiation

Point 14 of TFA's "Advantages of Cloud Cononies for Venus" says: "Venus is one of the few places in the solar system outside of Earth that humans could live long term without any reason for concern about cosmic radiation ... With Venus cloud colonies, this is simply not an issue at all." but it doesn't say why.
posted by achrise at 6:13 AM on November 24, 2014


"Because it would be cool" is totally a good enough reason.

If that were the case we would have already put a horse into cislunar space.

That we have not done so trumps your point, my dear colleague.
posted by aramaic at 6:16 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


More hand-waving space colonisation bullshit, that's why the article conveniently forgot to mention the parboiling radiation and lack of anything but insanely hot gasses.
posted by The River Ivel at 6:16 AM on November 24, 2014


Not just farts. Sulfuric acid, which would be the hypothetical colony's source of water, is H2SO4. Take out H2O and you'll be left with lots of SO2 and O (which presumably would quickly become O2. Sulfur dioxide is that lovely gas you smell when you get that rotten egg odor. And it has to go somewhere...

Given the toxic atmosphere of Venus, human farts would be a reassuring smell of safety and of flotation. Eat beans for the colony!
posted by Dip Flash at 6:21 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


you can't build or repair a new balloon because you can't get materials from the surface

This is actually addressed in the article:

"Once you have water and trace elements you can grow trees. Since trees are 90% either water or CO2, then most of the mass of the trees comes directly from the atmosphere. As the colonies expand, much of the construction material would be wood and fabrics grown almost entirely from materials in the atmosphere of Venus. Wood and plastic are easily strong enough to construct the lightweight habitats needed for Venus via Buckminster Fuller domes, tensegrity structures, and so forth."

I don't know enough to comment on the plausibility of this, but it's impossible to deny the poetry of the idea. Homestead the atmosphere of Venus in a giant home-grown wood-frame bubble of air? Sure, sign me up!
posted by aparrish at 6:24 AM on November 24, 2014 [5 favorites]


More hand-waving space colonisation bullshit, that's why the article conveniently forgot to mention the parboiling radiation and lack of anything but insanely hot gasses.

I think it mentioned those things, but it was such a meandering speculative piece, I can't be sure I didn't fall asleep a few times and miss something.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:25 AM on November 24, 2014


Since trees are 90% either water or CO2, then most of the mass of the trees comes directly from the atmosphere.

Most, huh.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:25 AM on November 24, 2014


shitty plastic ball of farts
doo dah! doo dah!
shitty plastic ball of farts
all the doo dah day!

Also... [Lando Calrissian joke]
posted by Naberius at 7:05 AM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


Pretty sure the Mars colony idea would face the radiation problem, on account of no magnetic field and a mist-thin atmosphere.

Still, this idea gives me vertigo just considering it.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 7:06 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


graymouser: "Sulfuric acid, which would be the hypothetical colony's source of water, is H2SO4. "

Johnny was a scientist, but Johnny is no more; what he thought was H2O was H2SO4.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 AM on November 24, 2014 [7 favorites]


Skydiving would be right out.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:34 AM on November 24, 2014


"Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

And any "tech news" article which contains the word 'soon' or 'may' is a promotion.
posted by Twang at 8:36 AM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Also...
posted by Flashman at 8:37 AM on November 24, 2014


I believe that "because it's there" is the greatest and only reason we need.

That's nice, but people don't actually live on the summit of Mt. Everest about which this was originally said.

That's despite that being in many ways a more survivable and in every way a more accessible location that the clouds of Venus.
posted by atrazine at 8:41 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


...it would make a swell musical...

...in a shitty plastic ball of farts hanging over Venus...


Starring Tim Minchin and Amanda Palmer....


INT. GRAND BALLROOM - DAY

Ruined decorations are scattered about. Yellow dust is everywhere. A shattered viewport is covered with an orange plastic patch. Robots are busy cleaning up after the storm.

ATIA stands at the forward cupola watching the sunrise over the sulpher clouds. She is still wearing her OLED gown from the evening before. The display is turned off and one shoulder is torn.

LUCIUS enters, wearing a burgundy silk achkan. Wordlessly, he strides over to her. They embrace. Their air masks touch gently.

posted by CynicalKnight at 8:59 AM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


Skydiving would be right out.

An ultra high tech sailplane would be awesome tho'.
posted by sammyo at 9:02 AM on November 24, 2014


The thing is that being more survivable than Mars or the Moon isn't exactly a high bar. Most of the problems with a potential Venusian cloud colony are still there on Mars or the Moon, plus there's a whole bunch of other problems we also don't have the capacity to deal with. At least on Venus the pressure, temperature, and gravity are all close enough to Earth that they're not going to be major problems.

I think Mars seems easier because we've all seen lots of depictions of space colonies on barren planets and sort of think we have a handle on the problems and pitfalls via science fiction, but we're so far away from being able to do any of this stuff that it still makes sense to consider a broad spectrum of options, especially when one presents itself that is OK on something like Earth-approximate gravity that we're really nowhere close to being able to fix on a potential Martian colony.
posted by Copronymus at 9:08 AM on November 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Because it would be cool" is totally a good enough reason.

Great! The collection plate is coming to you first.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:09 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think Mars seems easier because we've all seen lots of depictions of space colonies on barren planets...

No, Mars seems easier because we're use to building on solid ground, but have yet to building a floating base here on Earth.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:28 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


In the video with the scientists the one guy says (and I'm paraphrasing), "You could fit the entire empire state building in one of these, along with all of the people in the building." Then the other scientist says, "Whoa, you're telling me you could fit all of Manhattan in one of these?" Other scientist, forgetting what he just said, "Yup!" SMH.
posted by banished at 9:40 AM on November 24, 2014


I might start taking these seriously after we can successfully build a sealed, self-sustaining environment here on Earth.
posted by straight at 9:49 AM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


> "I think Mars seems easier because we've all seen lots of depictions of space colonies on barren planets ..."

By a complete coincidence, prompted by my reading Red Mars recently, a few days ago I asked my-spouse-the-space-scientist, "Hey, wouldn't it be easier to make a survivable environment on Venus than Mars? You've already got an atmosphere to work with, and the gravity is closer to Earth's, and I'd think it'd be easier to cool things down than heat them up, because that would be a matter of blocking sunlight rather than adding energy to the system, right?"

I was promptly Schooled.

Short answer: No. No it is not. Mars may be freezing and airless and empty, but Venus is basically Horrible Toxic Death Land.
posted by kyrademon at 10:17 AM on November 24, 2014


A more likely option: A really cool floating research outpost
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:32 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Even more likely: humanity just ignores Venus, 'cause there's nothing there for us.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:52 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think Copronymous has judged the tone of the piece correctly. It's not saying "this would be easy", but rather "let's not kid ourselves that the question of extraterrestrial colonisation in general is easy". What it actually says is: "Nobody knows if this is really possible. It's not had any detailed engineering type review, nor has it had any detailed scientific research or experiments. But it has not had any refutations either, and it seems promising."

I want a Martian colony too, guys, but it's so far from happening we might as well have fun speculating about some other stuff that won't happen either.
posted by howfar at 12:15 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


> "Even more likely: humanity just ignores Venus, 'cause there's nothing there for us."

Oh, I don't think we're going to ignore Venus. I mean, we already sent or tried to send Sputnik 7, Venera 1, Mariner 1, Sputnik 19, Mariner 2, Sputnik 20, Sputnik 21, Venera 1964A, Venera 1964B, Cosmos 27, Zond 1, Venera 2, Venera 3, Venera 4, Mariner 5, Cosmos 167, Venera 5, Venera 6, Venera 7, Cosmos 359, Venera 8, Cosmos 482, Mariner 10, Venera 9, Venera 10, Pioneer Venus 1, Pioneer Venus 2, Venera 11, Venera 12, Venera 13, Venera 14, Venera 15, Venera 16, Vega 1, Vega 2, Galileo, Magellan, Cassini, Messenger, Venus Express, and Akatsuki.

So I think it's safe to say that there is, you know, some interest.

However, I think unmanned missions are going to remain the only game in town for a long while yet. If there are manned missions, it's likely to start with small-crew scientific expeditions.

After that, well. If there is ever, even in the far future, a permanent base of any kind, a scientific research station still seems more useful than a colony. As someone pointed out above, I don't think we're in grave danger of running of of sulfuric acid here on earth, and other materials are probably easier to get elsewhere. (As a side note, I also personally dislike the idea of terraforming in general, but honestly no one's going to ask for my opinion, since if it ever becomes a relevant issue of debate that will most likely be long after my death.)
posted by kyrademon at 12:28 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well this doesn't sound nearly as cool as living in an O'Neill cylinder.
posted by ckape at 1:06 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


The wonderful sci fi transhuman roleplaying game Eclipse Phase has floating cloud cities on Venus. Naturally my players had a fist fight on top of one, 45 miles above the sulphuric hellscape.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:13 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Reading old science fiction about the jungles of Venus makes me grieve for the solar system that we dreamed of, and lost. Those few centuries when we realized there were worlds beyond ours, before we realized how barren those worlds were...

I think we need some new science fiction set in the cloud cities of Venus instead. Karl Schroeder's Virga books come close but aren't set in our solar system.

All the business about wooden construction and floating structures also makes me think ofthe stilt village of Ganvie, described previously on Metafilter. I can imagine refugees fleeing to Venus as they did to Ganvie, to build a life in a place where their enemies dare not follow. That life would probably have many similarities to life in Ganvie, boating from one man-made island to another...

Someone needs to write these stories. All the charms of the old science fictional Venus, and being scientifically plausible (however unlikely) would make it so much less sad to read...
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:15 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


We apply seventeenth century earth-bound paradigms to a universe they don't remotely match.
posted by Segundus at 1:49 PM on November 24, 2014


So I think it's safe to say that there is, you know, some interest.

Fine, we'll spend an unmanned spacecraft every now and then, but otherwise humanity isn't going there.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:06 PM on November 24, 2014


I might start taking these seriously after we can successfully build a sealed, self-sustaining environment here on Earth.

Okay but what if we didn't recruit Pauly Shore this time.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:48 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


What are you, some kind of rock monster?

NO KILL I
posted by maqsarian at 2:57 PM on November 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


Back when we still thought that Mercury was tidally locked to the Sun, the destination of choice was actually going to be Mercury, with its too-hot Sun facing side, too-cold side facing away, and the just-right twilight zone, bathed in the perpetual glow of the most spectacular sunrise (or sunset, take your pick) in the solar system. With more solar energy than you could handle, it was going to be the key to the solar system - power up the petawatt laser arrays and let the light sails journey forth to every other planet.

Then the Arecibo radar measurements came along and ruined a perfectly good thing, showing that the rotation period was exactly 2/3 of the orbit instead. (Oddly enough - and taking this comment back on topic - that same paper showed that Venus had a 117-day "day" and a 245-day "year". Not one but two blockbuster results tucked into that little paper.)

Now we're reduced to giant tracked cities that relentlessly crawl across across the surface of Mercury, always tracking the slowly moving twilight terminator line. And of course those crawlers are constantly breaking down at critical plot points. No massive arrays of petawatt lasers, though. Sigh.
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:13 PM on November 24, 2014 [5 favorites]


What are you, some kind of rock monster?

NO KILL I


So you're saying this Venusian colony would have to subsist on Hortaculture?
posted by straight at 9:51 PM on November 25, 2014 [2 favorites]


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