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NASA researchers want to send a solar-powered, flying explorer to Venus. The plane would stay high in the Venusian atmosphere - out of the acidic clouds, crushing pressures and surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead.

From its vantage point, it would be able to take far better radar measurements than an orbiting craft, and could also visit different altitudes, and provide insight into the dynamics of Venus' atmosphere. The researchers say it would also carry a computer to control a specially toughened, "dumb rover" on the planet's surface.

The research team, based at NASA's Glenn Research Centre, says that it can get basic electrical systems to work on Venus' surface, but that delicate things, such as computers, will not work in temperatures that soar to 450°C. They propose stripping all the complexity out of any rover destined for Venus's surface, and keeping the brain in its flying companion.

"With no vulnerable on-board computer, we might then be able to duplicate the Spirit and Opportunity missions," Lead researcher Geoffrey Landis told New Scientist.

If the plane cruised between the cloud base and the cloud tops, it would only have to deal with temperatures of 100°C.

Landis is especially interested in a fast-moving band of cloud that actually spins faster than the planet itself. Venus does have a very slow rotation: one day/night period takes 117 Earth days, but the cloud whizzes round in just four, and scientists so far have no explanation for it.

Space scientists at the European Space Agency have welcomed the plans, even though it is far from certain that NASA will approve and fund the plans. ESA is planning a Venus Express orbiter mission, a replica of the Mars Express mission that has gathered so much interesting data. But although orbital data is good, in-situ measurements are always preferable. ®

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