When Will Spacecraft Return to the Surface of Venus?
By Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor InSpaceNews.
In today’s new space race between countries and corporations, headlines are filled with topics on Mars, asteroid mining, satellite warfare, a new U.S. space force and another wave of Moon expeditions.
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But conspicuously absent from the news is any mention of Earth’s sister planet, Venus.
Still the second brightest object in the night sky after the Moon, Venus is named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty (and is the only planet named after a female). And yet, Venus is one of the most inhospitable worlds in our solar system. The Venusian atmosphere is 96.5% carbon dioxide and the average surface temperature is more than 850 degrees Fahrenheit; hot enough to melt lead and an outstanding example of the heat trapping power of C02.
In addition, pressures at the surface are 90 times greater than the Earth’s at sea level and her clouds are composed of sulfuric acid. Among the fantastic and mysterious worlds in our solar system, Venus sounds like the last place we would want to visit.
Soviet Landings on the Surface of Venus
And yet, that’s exactly what the Soviets accomplished with their Venera probes of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Since antiquity, astronomers have gazed at Venus through telescopes only to find a world perpetually covered in clouds. The Soviet Union set out to discover exactly what was on Venus’ surface.
After several failures, the Soviets made a soft landing on the surface of Venus on December 15, 1970, with Venera 7. The spacecraft transmitted information for 23 minutes before succumbing to the heat and pressure. Five years later, Venera 9 was the first to send back pictures from the surface.
The left half of the panoramic view of the surface of Venus from the Venera 13 lander. (Image credit: NASA)
The right half of the panoramic view of the surface of Venus from the Venera 13 lander. (Image credit: NASA)
The only tantalizing image we can see of the Venusian sky can be found in the corners of the Venera 13 images. The probe’s drill found a soil that was volcanic in origin, suggesting an active plate tectonic system similar to Earth’s. Then, after 127 minutes on the surface, Venera 13 succumbed to Venus’ hellish environment.
Going Back to Venus
The current scientific view of Venus is that it once had a comfortable atmosphere and perhaps oceans at some point in its distant past. Studying the Earth’s so-called twin in detail may deepen our understanding of how a runaway greenhouse effect can absolutely wreck a planet.
What’s more, Venus may harbor life. Astrobiologist David Grinspoon, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, recently stated that “Venus’ upper atmosphere also abounds with a mysterious compound that absorbs ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the high-energy light that causes sunburns here on Earth. Nobody knows what this stuff is or where it comes from, but some scientists have speculated that it could be a biological pigment — perhaps a sulfur-based sunblock of some sort.”
After all, microorganisms on Venus or in its clouds wouldn’t be the strangest place scientists have found life thriving.
Advances in electronics and metallurgy since the early 1980s make it more feasible than ever to mount another expedition to Venus. The recent Japanese Akatsuki probe entered orbit around Venus in 2015. Since then, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA has released stunning images of Venusian cloud cover.
As for another landing, NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, are discussing a successor Venus landing mission called Venera-D that could last for months on the planet’s surface. However, NASA admits that nothing is being built right now.
As space exploration continues to make headlines and more and more young people contemplate careers in space science, Venus may provide an incredible opportunity to do real science, help us better understand climate change and explore the very mysteries of life itself.
It’s time to make Venus newsworthy again.