Would a Helium powered balloon vehicle work on Mars? Things that might need to be answered:

  1. How much liquid Helium would you need to pack in order to fill a balloon with enough helium gas to travel the planet.

  2. How much energy does it take to re-compress Helium per/litre at low temperatures on the surface of mars and would a solar cell be enough?

  3. Would a "Balloot" (balloon/parachute) be enough to complete spacecraft re-entry on arrival to mars without really needing to immediately "touch down"?

  4. Any other things to think about by anyone else?

  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander. This should be posted as an answer. And I will +1 it. $\endgroup$
    – Apoorv
    May 30, 2012 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander NASA fly balloons on earth, with one ton payloads, at altitudes where the air pressure is less than 0.01 times that of the earth at sea level. nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/superpressure_balloon.html Does the idea of a 7 million cubic foot balloon seem implausible to you? $\endgroup$
    – Dan Piponi
    May 30, 2012 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ Why would you want to use Helium? In a CO2 atmosphere, H2 won't catch fire. It's a lighter and yet bigger molecule. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Jun 1, 2012 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ @DanPiponi, I don't really follow what you are trying to imply. Yes that's possible, the Hindenburg was 7 million cubic feet $\endgroup$
    – Diesel
    Jan 6, 2021 at 17:37

3 Answers 3

  1. Yes, a helium balloon can certainly work on Mars. There have been many studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA's Wallops Flight Facility that show feasible mission designs. Solar-heated Montgolfier balloons may provide more lift for the same total system mass, but have very large altitude variations, usually touching down at night. A super-pressure helium balloon provides much better stability for long-duration missions. Both such systems are discussed in this paper. (Side note: a system to keep Helium in the liquid state would very likely be more mass than just high-pressure tanks to hold the same amount of compressed Helium.)

  2. Why would you want to recompress the Helium?

  3. Using a balloon for terminal descent purely to avoid a parachute and rockets would be mass inefficient. You need a very large balloon for a small payload mass. However it has been proposed for very small payloads. (See above paper.)

  4. A balloon on Mars is useful for payloads that want to be above the surface but not very far, and then want mobility across the surface. What is really needed is a mission that needs a balloon, not a balloon that needs a mission. One common example is a magnetometer mission to map magnetic fields. Since the magnetic fields drop as a high power of radius, the sensitivity is much greater at balloon altitudes than at orbital altitudes.

  • $\begingroup$ What was that paper that you linked to? The link no longer works $\endgroup$
    – Diesel
    Jan 5, 2021 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Diesel Fixed. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Jan 5, 2021 at 18:45

About question 1. Yes it is possible to have to have working balloon on Mars, but there are couple important differences:

  1. pressure of atmosphere on Mars is 0,7-0,9 kPa comparing to 101,325 kPa on Earth it’s very low. This means that density of atmosphere is much lower and lift given by balloon is also much lower (this reduces effectiveness of balloon by more than 100 times).
  2. atmosphere components are different on Mars, 95,32% is carbon dioxide. On Earth nitrogen (78,084%) and oxygen (20,946%) are leading components. This increases density of Mars atmosphere about 40% and improves lift of balloon.
  3. since Mars atmosphere doesn't contain oxygen (0,13%) it would be better to use hydrogen (it is 2x lighter). On Mars it gives only 1.05 times better lift than helium but hydrogen is cheaper and easier to maintain. On Earth we don't use it since it is dangerous with oxygen, see Hindenburg.
  4. Surface gravity is unimportant (see Archimedes' principle)

Using hydrogen you need 100/1.5/1.05 ~ 63 times more gas (in balloon diameter it means 4 bigger) than on Earth to lift same weight. If you ever seen balloon then you know that it is not practical idea.

About question 3. See Mars pathfinder. It is not exactly balloon but you can see that they were thinking about that. During atmosphere entry full size balloon (which would allow floating) wouldn't be able to survive extreme conditions even if you use best materials. Even if it would be possible to have such materials then wind pressure will compress balloon to unpredictable shape leading to disaster.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The small added lift of Hydrogen does not pay for the lower density and higher mass of tankage to bring along. The lift is proportional to the difference in molecular weight, so you go from 44 - 4 = 40 to 44 - 2 = 42, i.e. only a 5% increase in lift. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    May 31, 2012 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Adler: yap I did wrote that, but I also wrote that it helium is cheaper and easier to maintain when there is minimal level of oxygen (0,13%). Helium has smaller particle and is able to diffuse through metal. It is also much harder to condensate. $\endgroup$
    – Marek R
    May 31, 2012 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, yes you did write that. The cost of Helium is entirely in the noise of the cost of a spacecraft that goes to Mars. The mass of either the Hydrogen or Helium is in the noise as well, but the mass of the compressed Hydrogen tankage is greater than for compressed Helium, taking into account leak rates. It is not practical to liquefy either for transport to Mars. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    May 31, 2012 at 17:30

I doubt that this is feasible at all. The atmosphere consists mainly of CO$_2$, which is heavier than helium but the absolute pressure is only 0.006 times our standard pressure. So basically the helium vessel would be lighter but the total force due to the buoyancy is tiny compared to gravity which is only 0.4 times less than on earth.

Just try to calculate the volume necessary to lift 1 kg.

As Dan Piponi pointed out there are some really large ballons from NASA. So if we take those dimensions of the linked article with 22 million cubic foot at 110000 ft to lift a large science experiment my estimate is that one needs approximately 400 of these gas bottles (with a pressure of 200 bar each):

gas bottle

So that seems not feasible for any kind of Mars exploration in the near future.

Edit: As the necessary amount of helium scales linearly with the weight this depends a lot on the scale of the craft. The Mars Global Surveyor with 1035 kg would require the mentioned 400 gas bottles, even more for larger probes such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2180 kg). A small sensor package, essentially a nanosatellite (1-10 kg), is feasible, as the required amount of gas is orders of magnitude lower.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ No, it's feasible. Your analysis consisting of a photograph of a bunch of high pressure tanks is, well, somewhat lacking. The NASA balloons you refer to carry a thousand kilograms of payload to Mars-like atmospheric densities. A Mars balloon mission would carry a payload measured in single or low two digit kilograms. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    May 31, 2012 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkAdler: Thanks for the feedback. From the wording of the question I assumed lifting of larger crafts such as Global Surveyor and edited my answer accordingly. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 31, 2012 at 8:56

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