NASA is planning two missions to Venus to study how the planet became Earth’s âevil twinâ. Colorado scientists are involved at every stage of the projects, which will launch at the end of the decade.
In our solar system, Venus is closest in size to Earth. It’s also roughly the same distance from the Sun – which is why some scientists call it our sister planet. However, this may not be a fair comparison given the large difference in surface conditions.
âVenus is truly a version of hell,â said Larry Esposito, of the Atmospheric and Space Physics Laboratory (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Anything that would attempt to land on Venus would immediately be destroyed by the heavy, toxic atmosphere.
âThe temperature is high enough to melt the lead. The atmosphere has a pressure 100 times that of here on Earth, âhe said. “It’s completely unbreathable – no oxygen, full of sulphurous gas and sulfuric acid.”
It’s been almost 30 years since NASA sent a mission to study Venus. Since then, the space agency has explored Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and even Pluto. But Esposito said returning to Venus can help resolve some important questions.
âIt’s a place that started out like Earth,â he said. âThe question then is: how did it differ? How did Venus become such a terrible place, such a bad place, when Earth is a home where people and all kinds of lives, organisms, can live very well?
These are some of the questions that two NASA missions, called VERITAS and DAVINCI, will attempt to answer.
VERITAS will orbit Venus, mapping the surface in great detail. He researches plate tectonics and active volcanoes on the planet. This is not an easy task as he has to peer through thick clouds first.
DAVINCI will send a probe into the atmosphere of Venus. It will measure the amounts of each gas, which can tell scientists about the history of the planet. The spacecraft could also determine if Venus ever had an ocean.
But first, the missions really have to get to Venus. This is where Lockheed Martin and Program Director Tim Linn come in.
“We will support both of these missions by helping with the mission design, building the spacecraft, integrating the payloads, launching the two spacecraft, and then carrying out mission operations here in Littleton, Colorado,” did he declare.
Linn said each mission poses its own challenges for the team. VERITAS must slow down and go into orbit, while DAVINCI must withstand intense heat as it descends towards the planet’s surface.
âWe think we have, really, two low risk programs at the end of the day because of a lot of the legacy that can be learned from past missions that we have built,â he said.
The missions will only launch in 2028 and 2030. But the data they will provide has a wide range of applications.
Constantine Tsang, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder and co-investigator of the VERITAS mission, said Venus could help researchers understand climate change on Earth.
âWhen you look at the atmosphere of Venus, it’s this very rich and dense carbon dioxide atmosphere that causes this massive greenhouse effect,â he said. âIt has analogies for the future of Earth. We see, potentially, an end state of Earth by studying Venus. “
The possible scientific discoveries do not end there. They go beyond Earth, and even beyond the solar system to exoplanets. Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets, or planets around other stars, over the past 25 years.
âA lot of them are very close to their parent sun, much like Venus,â Tsang said. “So the question is, when we see a ‘Venus’ around another star system, do they look like Venus or do they look more like Earth?”
CU Boulder and LASP researcher Kevin McGouldrick studies clouds over Venus. He said those same questions will be important as scientists search for habitable planets or signs of alien life.
“If we were an alien scientist studying our solar system, with the capabilities that we humans have today, we would examine our solar system, and we would probably conclude that there are two habitable planets similar to the Earth system,” he said. McGouldrick said. “We would be really hard pressed to tell the difference between Earth and Venus.”
While not directly involved, he said the data collected by the missions would be useful to anyone who studies Venus.
âThey represent what I hope are just the start of what would be a concerted effort to truly fully understand Venus, which is the most Earth-like planet we know of, other than Earth,â McGouldrick said.