Jun 8, 2021 - Science

A renaissance for Venus

Illustration of Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, with the figure of Venus replaced by the planet of Venus. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA is sending missions to Venus for the first time in more than 30 years, breathing new life into the scientific quest to understand the oft-ignored planet.

Why it matters: Understanding Venus is thought to be key to learning more about how habitable worlds form within our own solar system — and outside of it.

  • For years, researchers focused on Venus have been forced to make do with incomplete data collected by spacecraft sent there decades ago.
  • "I know there are a lot of people that would have liked to have been doing Venus research, but the resources haven't been there. Missions bring resources and bring more interest," David Grinspoon, a Planetary Science Institute scientist working with one of the missions chosen by NASA, told me. "We expect an infusion of young researchers."

Catch up quick: NASA announced last week that it would be sending two new missions — DAVINCI+ and VERITAS — to Venus, marking the first time the space agency has sent dedicated missions to the world in more than 30 years.

  • DAVINCI+ will send a probe through Venus' atmosphere to gather data about how the planet turned into the cloudy world it is.
  • VERITAS plans to map the planet's surface using radar to help figure out whether Venus still has active plate tectonics and volcanic activity.
  • Both missions are expected to launch between 2028 and 2030.

The big questions: Scientists think Venus could have evolved in one of two ways. One theory posits the world once had a magma ocean that effectively ruined it from the start, creating the thick atmosphere enveloping the planet today.

  • The other theory holds that Venus was habitable, with water on its surface, before extreme volcanic eruptions created the runaway greenhouse effect seen there today.
  • DAVINCI+ and VERITAS should be able to collect data to help figure out exactly which model is correct.
  • But even these two missions, while exciting, won't be able to answer all of the questions researchers have about Venus' history, Venus researcher Paul Byrne of North Carolina State University told me.
  • "It's going to enable us to ask questions we haven't thought of because we're going to find stuff we haven't imagined, and it's going to basically help us get reintroduced to Venus," Byrne added.

The intrigue: Last year, scientists announced the possible detection of phosphine in Venus' upper atmosphere, a sign that life could exist in the temperate cloud tops of the planet.

  • While it's not clear if NASA picked these missions directly because of the phosphine discovery, the two missions will be able to sniff out the stinky gas in the Venusian atmosphere, if it's there.
  • "It's definitely good for the phosphine question because it will definitely be able to tell us if there's phosphine or not," Clara Sousa-Silva, a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics who was one of the authors of the phosphine study, told me.
  • Sousa-Silva and other scientists will continue to search for phosphine using other methods ahead of the new missions, however.

The big picture: DAVINCI+ and VERITAS aren't the only Venus-focused missions. Japan's Akatsuki is already studying the world from orbit, while Russia and India are both planning missions to the planet.

Yes, but: While the Venus community is rejoicing, some other communities of scientists are having their own dreams deferred.

  • The Venus missions beat out two others for spots on NASA's roster.
  • One mission that was under development — to Neptune's moon Triton — would have been the first dedicated mission out to the system ever. The other would have sent a probe to study Jupiter's volcanic moon, Io.
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