Multiple research teams are developing missions designed to address the planet’s potential as an abode for alien life — life that could be swirling high above the scorched surface within the relatively balmy Venus clouds.
In the latest announcement from NASA’s solar system exploration program, two missions have been given the go-ahead – and they’re both bound for Venus. The two ambitious missions will launch between 2028 and 2030.
“Newer, nimbler, faster.” That’s the call stemming from a recently issued report led by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-led group that details a suite of privately funded missions to hunt for life on Venus.
Venus is a hostile world. Its atmosphere contains sulphuric acid and the surface temperatures is hot enough to melt lead. But it has not always been this way. It is thought Venus started out very similar to the Earth.
While on Earth, carbon is mainly trapped in rocks, on Venus it has escaped into the atmosphere – making it roughly 96% carbon dioxide. This has led to a runaway greenhouse effect, pushing surface temperatures up to 750 kelvin (470℃ or 900℉).
The Venus Life Finder (VLF) missions are a series of three atmospheric probes designed to assess the habitability of the Venusian clouds and to search for signs of life there.
But, the extreme surface conditions are one of the reasons planetary exploration missions have avoided Venus. The high temperature means a very high pressure of 90 bars (equivalent to roughly one kilometer underwater) which is enough to instantly crush most planetary landers. It might not come as a surprise, then, that missions to Venus haven’t always gone to plan.
According to the report, the VLF missions would be a focused, optimal set of relatively low-cost efforts that can be launched quickly. The mission concepts come out of an 18-month study by an MIT-led worldwide consortium. The study was partially funded by the nonprofit Breakthrough Initiatives.
Ultimately, the appraisal concludes, scientists need to return to Earth a pristine sample of the Venusian cloud environment if they hope to address the Venus-life question with any robustness.
Most of the exploration done so far was carried out by the then Soviet Union between the 1960s and the 1980s. There are some notable exceptions, such as NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission in 1972 and the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission in 2006.
A cruise spacecraft would drop into the Venusian atmosphere a small entry craft that carries an instrument package. The fast mission’s science goal is to measure various chemical abundances at different altitudes, including confirming the presence of phosphine gas — a potential sign of life that’s a topic of considerable debate in the scientific community.
The first landing happened in 1970, when the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 crashed due to the parachute melting. But it managed to transmit 20 minutes of data back to Earth. The first surface images were taken by Venera 9, followed by Veneras 10, 13 and 14.
“We hope this is the start of a new paradigm where you go cheaply, more often, and in a more focused way,” Sara Seager of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, the principal investigator of the planned VLF missions, said in a statement late last year.
“There are these lingering mysteries on Venus that we can’t really solve unless we go back there directly,” Seager added, saying that chemical anomalies leave room for the chance of life on that cloud-veiled world.
“Exoplanet scientists started to realize that if we don’t understand Earth-Venus differences in our own solar system, how are we going to be able to determine what we are starting to see in classes of planets elsewhere? That was a shot in the arm for the Venus community,” Grinspoon told Space.com. “It’s sort of ‘ground truth’ that we can get from our own solar system.”
Another impetus of “why Venus now?” stems from new simulations known as general circulation models (GCMs), which suggest surprising, unexpected results — namely, that Venus may have been habitable to Earth-like life for long stretches in the past thanks to long-lasting surface water oceans.
There is therefore new respectability for the idea that there could be a habitable zone in the clouds of Venus, even today, Grinspoon said. “It’s a line that I have been pushing in the wilderness for decades.”
In June 2021, three new missions to Venus were announced, two by NASA and one by the European Space Agency (ESA).
NASA agency Truth, honesty, or Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy, will be the first NASA spacecraft to explore Venus since the 1990s. VERITAS will launch no later than December 2027 and orbit the planet Venus.
NASA Da Vinci The mission will launch in late 2020. After exploring the upper part of Venus’s atmosphere, DAVINCI will drop a probe toward the planet’s surface. When it lands for an hour, the probe will take thousands of measurements and take close-up pictures of the surface.
these Imagine It will provide detailed observations of Venus. As a primary mission partner, NASA is providing the Synthetic Aperture Radar instrument that will make high-resolution measurements of the planet’s surface properties.
Looking at the Venus Lifefinder missions, NASA and ESA projects, and projected missions from India and Russia, “I see momentum movements,” Grinspoon said. “There’s a lot we don’t know and a lot of data we need.”
Work on Venus
Encouraging all the attention Venus now receives is Darby Diar from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She chairs the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG), a NASA community forum.
“I’m like where we were Mars In the mid-nineties. At the time, we didn’t have a good map of Mars. We didn’t know what the geology of Mars was like and we didn’t have the terrain. We were just beginning to explore Mars. Then all the errands followed, and soon we checked all of these boxes,” Diar said. We are at the beginning of the exploration of Venus, the early stages of the Venus program. Venus has a lot to catch up on.”
Diar said the next thing that should happen in Venus exploration is work on the landers. “Start with a small lander, then move on to bigger and bigger landers. I hope that’s the direction we’re going.”
Is the community of Venus researchers ready to launch into action?
“You bet we are,” Diar said. “We are prepared and ready to use up-to-date data.”