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Sci Friday: UAF Ph.D Candidate works to deliver a lander to the surface of Venus

Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 4:21 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - This Sci Friday we go out of this world with a look at research conducted here in the last frontier to bring us all one step closer to understanding the “final frontier”.

In August of 2020 a Planetary Mission Concept Study Report was published breaking down the Venus Flagship Mission. This is a developing initiative spearheaded by principal investigator Dr. Martha S. Gilmore of Wesleyan University, with the goal of sending a new lander to the surface of Venus to learn more about its geological history, including whether or not the planet ever supported surface water.

Joshua Knicely, Ph.D Student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), worked under Dr. Gilmore in the development of this program. Knicely told us “Most of what I was responsible for was landing site characterization, and hazard detection and analysis - ‘cause we want to get somewhere safe. There are really two ways to do that. We can either preprogram a safe location, give it models of the surface so it can locate it; or if we can’t do that, we have to set it up so that it can guide itself, basically make the thing autonomous.”

The current resolution of digital elevation models which show the topography of Venus is limited to 1-2 kilometers. Those models would need to be closer to half a meter in order to safely deliver the small lander to a precise, safe location.

“So my landing site characterization is basically saying, ‘We can’t do that, we can’t preprogram stuff cause we don’t have the data’ - and so we want to have an artificial intelligence onboard. The idea with that is we’re gonna have this closed loop artificial intelligence that can see what it’s doing, look at the surface, get information out of the imagery it has, and then make an educated decision,” said Knicely.

One of the primary obstacles Knicely is working to solve is getting information from descent imagery that the autonomous lander will be able to understand and use to navigate to a landing site through the thick cloud cover of Venus’ atmosphere.

“Venus in particular has this problem, something called ‘near isotropic lighting.’ What we’re used to on Earth is directional lighting. We’ve got the sun and it’s our main light source, and everything just comes straight from there. On Venus there’s the cloud deck which scatters light so effectively it seems like light is coming from every direction. It makes feature tracking and identification really difficult. So we need to overcome both the blurring that happens, and also the weird lighting conditions,” said Knicely.

If these and other challenges are overcome and the Venus Flagship Mission successfully delivers its lander to the surface, its mission could drastically enhance our collective understanding of our neighbor planet.

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