Extreme Environments in NASA Planetary Exploration

Authored by: Elizabeth Kolawa , Mohammad Mojarradi , Linda Del Castillo

Extreme Environment Electronics

Print publication date:  November  2012
Online publication date:  November  2012

Print ISBN: 9781439874301
eBook ISBN: 9781439874318
Adobe ISBN:


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One of the biggest challenges of solar system exploration is the variety of extreme environments that orbiters, landers, and probes must encounter and survive. For example, exploration of the Venus surface requires engineering systems and science instruments that can withstand intense heat (480°C) and pressure (92 bar). A spacecraft that dwells in the equatorial plane of Jupiter, or that orbits any of the inner Galilean satellites, must be designed to handle an extremely harsh radiation environment. Table 2.1 [1] summarizes planetary extreme environments. The planetary environments are organized by extremes in temperature; however, it is evident that missions will often encounter multiple extremes simultaneously. An adequate technical solution for coping with only one or the other of these environments may not work when they are presented simultaneously. For example, at Venus and Jupiter, high temperatures are typically coupled with high pressures, requiring technical developments that integrate solutions for both extreme conditions. Europa’s surface couples low temperatures and high radiation levels, requiring radiation-hard electronics that also function at low temperatures. In general, an important consideration is also the timing of the encounter with the extreme environment. This varies with the target. Examples include the following:

Venus: The temperature and pressure increase steadily during descent until extremes are reached at the surface. The surface exploration platform (lander, probe, etc.) may have to pass through sulfuric acid clouds (Figure 2.1).

Jupiter: Extreme temperatures and pressures increase during the descent phase into the atmosphere.

Europa: High radiation is experienced as the spacecraft enters the Jovian radiation environment, with a substantial fraction received prior to entering orbit. A combination of high radiation and low temperature characterize Europa’s surface.

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