Telon’s brilliant homage to Elon Musk’s stars and his Doge-1 mission may be at the center of a space exploration meme, but Venus is fast becoming a new center of space exploration research. Two new projects – which promise to do much more than launch a Roadster into space – are on the horizon at NASA.
On June 2, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced the next two selections of missions for the Space Agency Discovery Program ̵
The two selected missions are DAVINCI + (a mission to understand the atmospheric evolution of Venus) and VERITAS (a mission to better map the Venusian surface and subsoil), now both aimed at launching between 2028 and 2030. Together they will be the first spacecraft of NASA, sent to the second planet in our solar system after nearly 40 years.
If Earth had a brother or sister, its name would be Venus. Of course, Mars has days with an Earth-like length and inclination. And yes, all three planets live in the habitable zone of our solar system – with liquid water existing on their surface at one time. But in many key ways, Earth and Venus are more strikingly similar: They have almost the same size, gravity, density, mass, and chemical composition. Mars is much smaller, less dense, and on average farther away from a member of our Venus family. So while Venus receives approximately twice as much energy from the sun as Earth, the two planets probably started pretty much the same. Brothers and sisters, despite their common background and upbringing, end up taking different paths in life. Venus and Earth are no exception. As Earth became the home of all life discovered so far in our universe, Venus became a toxic greenhouse – with an atmosphere of about 97 percent carbon dioxide and surface temperatures above 850 degrees Fahrenheit.
Historically, NASA has largely ignored Venus to focus on Mars and other research targets. Surface conditions are absolutely terrible for researchers, both electronic and human, so many scientists have been cautious about studying what they believed to be a completely dead planet. Most Venera landings last less than two hours on the surface. Unlike Mars, where many rovers have survived for years, our time to face the Venusian surface is extremely limited. Even NASA’s new DAVINCI + probe is expected to last only 20 minutes on the surface after completing two springs to depict Venus clouds.
American flights and probes have been sent to the planet, but the Soviet Union is still the only country to deliberately (and controllably) land spacecraft on the planet’s surface. (I assume that the United States lost the front of Venus during the Cold War.) Most information about the atmosphere and surface data from Venus was collected by the Soviet Union.
Beginning in 1961, the Soviet space program sent dozens of spacecraft to the planet on missions, drilling and landing. His Venus program has achieved some of the greatest successes in human space exploration – including the first landing of spacecraft on another planet and the first images from the surface of another world.
A second wave of Venus missions began with the European Space Agency’s Venus Express in 2005, whose findings suggest the planet may be geologically active. Japan’s aerospace research agency Akatsuki Orbiter launched in 2010 and is currently in orbit around Venus; the goal is to clarify the motion of the Venusian atmosphere and to establish planetary meteorology. The Indian Space Research Organization plans to send an orbit called Shukrayaan to Venus in 2024 to map surface and underground elements, along with studying the interaction of the atmosphere with the solar wind. Roscosmos, Russia’s space organization, is planning a joint effort with scientists from the European Space Agency to launch a combined orbiter – Venera-D – to study water content and seismic activity among other targets in 2029. Venus is witnessing a scientific renaissance.
Understanding how Venus’s climate, surface, and interior evolved is valuable given the similarities between Earth and Venus. The mechanics that caused Venus to heat up can help scientists here on Earth better understand our climate change – acting as a test of what happens when the escaping greenhouse effect takes responsibility. In addition, research on the past existence of surface waters and atmospheric conditions has become fashionable. Interest in Venus has been boosted by (usually debunked) findings in 2020 that phosphine (a biomarker) may be present in the atmosphere. Although probably untrue, the ensuing discussion helped build the profile of the planet as a place to explore. (Although, as Lucianne Walkowicz explained earlier for Future Tense,, the possibility of life on the planet could further complicate the study of Venus). As our knowledge of Venus evolves, more and more scientists are beginning to think that the planet may not be as dead and dry as many thought it was – or at least that it was not at some point in its past.
The study of Venus also allows scientists to study the effects of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere – which is valuable given past proposals to inject sulfur droplets into the atmosphere to mitigate climate change here on Earth. In addition, Venus provides scientists with a way to test their ability to understand the chemistry of even more distant celestial bodies. As Stephen Kane of the DAVINCI + mission explained to the American Chemical Society, “We will never send a probe to Proxima Centauri b,” the closest exoplanet to Earth. He means that if we can’t model our planetary neighbor, we have no chance of modeling planets in stellar systems light years from ours. Finally, Venus helps us better understand why our planet has developed plate tectonics (a key player in the modulation of carbon dioxide and recycled material on Earth) and other rocky planets in our solar system do not.
On a more existential level, the study of Venus also allows us to determine whether microbial extraterrestrial life exists (or has existed) on the planet – phosphine or not phosphine. NASA’s new missions will help with this – with DAVINCI + trying to study the planet’s climate change to determine past habitability, and VERITAS analyzing the surface composition of Venus for comparison to Earth. As humans, I believe that most of us have an innate desire to determine if we are truly alone in our universe. And if, like me, you’re a space maniac, then exploring Venus is just cool.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, public policy and society.