We are heading to Venus. Our nearest neighbor

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has approved 2 new missions to investigate our closest planetary neighbour, Venus. Venus is a fascinating planet. Venus is considered ‘upside down’ and spins the wrong way (spinning clockwise). Is hotter than Mercury at 462°C despite being further from the sun. Its day is longer than its year due to a very slow rotation on its axis. This is all fascinating but why is studying Venus so important that NASA have granted ~$500 MILLION to EACH of the 2 missions? Despite all the crazy facts about Venus, it actually shares a lot of similarities to us, being of similar size and density. It may have even once had oceans and an earth like atmosphere. The 2 approved missions aim to understand how Venus became such a furnace and further investigate the potential Venus once had oceans. This could give insights that are crucial to understanding our own atmosphere and how it could change with global warming.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface all the way down to its very core,” said Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

Image taken from Venera 14 lander mission. Note: Original image was black and white and the colour was later added. The accuracy of the colour is debated.

Besides the moon (and the sun), Venus is the brightest natural object in our sky. This is due to clouds of sulphuric acid in the atmosphere, which make it reflective. This may be why Venus is thought to be named after the Roman Goddess of love and beauty. However, this reflective atmosphere also obscures our vision of its surface, making it harder to study from a distance. That is where the probes come in. Venus has already had flyby, atmospheric and even lander probes which have given us some information about the planet. The Russian (then Soviet Union) Venera programme made great progress in the 70-80s with the first successful landing on another planet in 1972 with Venera 8, the first images from the surface of another planet in 1975 with Venera 9, and the first recorded sounds from another planet in 1982 with Venera 13.

However, despite these missions and many other atmospheric and orbital observations there are still many unanswered questions about Venus that these missions aim to answer.

The proposed missions;
DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging)
An artist’s concept of the NASA DAVINCI+ probe descending in stages to Venus’s surface.Credit…NASA/GSFC

DAVINCI+ consists of a sphere which will descend through Venus’ thick atmosphere, taking readings that will aid in understanding the runaway greenhouse effect that occurred on Venus. DAVINCI+ will also help determine if the planet ever had an ocean. Perhaps we weren’t the only ‘blue planet’ on the block earlier in our solar systems lifespan. Additionally, DAVINCI+ will take the first high-resolution images of Venus’ geological features, which may answer questions around whether Venus has similar plate tectonics to earth.


VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy)
An artist’s concept of VERITAS at Venus

VERITAS will orbit Venus and chart the surface, creating a 3D map of the planet. This will confirm whether the planet has active plate tectonics and volcanoes. Veritas will also take infrared measurements of emissions from the surface. This will help map the rock types on Venus, which are still largely unknown, and will determine if volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere.


These missions won against stiff competition and underwent a rigorous peer review process. I for one am excited to learn more about our closest neighbor, not only to satisfy a curiosity but also to see what discoveries can be influential on life here and understanding our own planet.

Author

  • Dr Craig Davison has a PhD in Medicine from Queens University Belfast (QUB). Craig has published research investigating novel treatment strategies targeting nucleotide metabolism. Craig is currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow and is passionate about science communication.

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