Hot air balloons gently bobbing above the clouds of Venus. It sounds like a scenic getaway for thrill-seeking space tourists of the future. But that's not exactly what NASA has in mind.

The U.S. space agency has announced an imaginative new proposal to populate Venus' skies with hot air balloons capable of monitoring the planet's seismic activity, something we know little about due to the harsh and inhospitable environment there, reports Science magazine.

"We've never made a direct seismic measurement on Venus," says Siddharth Krishnamoorthy, an experiment team member at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "There is a lot balloons can offer in terms of unlocking some major questions about the planet."

Even if it was possible to equip these balloons for human vacationers, it's probably not somewhere anyone would want to visit. That's because Venus' environment is a veritable hellscape, with supersonic winds, an atmosphere that's 96 carbon dioxide, and runaway global warming conditions that would instantly melt anyone who ventured too close to its rocky surface.

These conditions are also the reason why we have so little information about the planet, despite the fact that it's Earth's neighbor.

Why hot air balloons?

The advantage to hot air balloons is that they can float high enough in the planet's atmosphere to avoid the harsh conditions below, though they can be rather fragile. In fact, a pair of Russian balloons were successfully deployed to explore Venus' atmosphere back in the 1980s. They only lasted for a couple of days, and were not equipped with any seismic measuring gear, but NASA scientists believe this was a precedent that can be improved upon in a future mission.

But why do we really need to know about the seismic activity on this uninhabitable wasteland to begin with?

For one, scientists believe Venus may still be seismically active, and measuring this activity could allow us to analyze the composition of the planet in unprecedented detail. More importantly, though, we don't fully understand what caused Venus to become the hellscape that it is today. Venus is often referred to as our sister planet; it actually shares a lot of similarities with Earth, including its mass and proximity to the sun. And yet, somehow it evolved much differently than our planet has.

So understanding why Venus took such a turn for the worse will help us to understand what makes Earth so special. It might also allow scientists to better distinguish between Earth-like exoplanets, or Venus-like exoplanets, as we discover rocky worlds in other solar systems.

At the very least, the distant-future space tourism industry will surely appreciate having some better destinations on offer than Venus.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Hot air balloons could soon fly over Venus' clouds
It won't exactly make Venus any more desirable as a tourist destination.