By Shannon Hall
The helicopter fell like a stone. It dropped by more than 1,500 metres over Maryland, twisting slightly as the ground grew rapidly closer. Although this was all according to plan, that didn’t settle James Garvin’s nerves. Nor did the realization that his seat belt wasn’t fully fastened — a moment that sent his heart rate skyrocketing.
Then, a mere 6 metres above the ground, the ride got even wilder when the pilots pulled the aircraft out of the fall and climbed skywards, only to fall again. The helicopter dropped ten times that day. And each time, Garvin pointed a camera towards the ground through the open door in an attempt to measure the topography of a rock quarry below — from massive boulders to smooth sheets of sand. Although his interests were hardly terrestrial.
Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator on a proposed mission to Venus that would drop a probe through its atmosphere. That’s why he hired two pilots in August 2016 to plunge a helicopter towards the ground while he tested what a Venus probe might be able to photograph. The harrowing ride was worth it: researchers would love to get their hands on pictures of Venus with so much detail that the scenery would become familiar. “These images would be like you landing in your backyard,” he says.
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