The radio that will send us the secrets of the future of the Earth

On March 1, 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 probe sent the image below these lines. He had just landed on the surface 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 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 Earth’s atmospheres crushed it against the surface.

The soil of Venus photographed by Venera 13 (USSR)

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 needed 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 that 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.

Audio of the surface of Venus recorded by the Venera 14 probe

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 it holds important clues about our possible future.

How the Vulcan II works

The secret of the 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 necessary functions to support a mission on Venus.

The Silicon Carbide Integrated Circuit of the Vulcan II Radio System (IEEE)

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 hethe 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 very high thermal conductivity, which makes the heat generated can be dissipated with a speed only equaled by the 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 increased 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.

Another of the SiC circuits of the Swedish-American team. (IEEE)

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 its venusian environment simulation chamber.

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 the possibility of extremophilic microscopic life).

Concept of a small rover on Venus (NoEmotion)

For science, understanding Venus is vital to understanding Earth and its possible future. Answer questions like what events precipitated the change of Venus and what chemical processes happen in its atmosphere It 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 ultraviolet radiation that would destroy life on Earth.

Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for a study in which they identified the role of CFC gases in destroying the ozone layer that protects us against ultraviolet rays. That study was based on other, among them the observation of CO2 in the Venusian atmosphere conducted by scientists at MIT.

Launch of an ozone measuring probe in the Antarctic Circle (Robert Schwarz / University of Minnesota)

Models of atmospheric chemistry on Venus led Molina and Rowland to conclude that the same phenomena were occurring in the earth’s atmosphere without us realizing it: ozone was being destroyed by CFC gases that were previously used in refrigerators, air conditioners and other machines. Thanks to that discovery, and despite the deniers of the time, they signed the Montreal protocols in 1987. These agreements limited the use of CFCs and are currently proving in a gradual reduction of the destruction of this fundamental gas for our survival.

As Carl Sagan points out in his book Pale Blue Dot, the study of Venus saved us from imminent danger. Hence the need to continue researching there and on other planets. Knowing our solar system is critical to deciphering our past, choosing our future, and ensuring our survival on Earth and beyond.

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