Missions to Venus: Highlights From History, and When We May Go Back

Missions to Venus: Highlights From History, and When We May Go Back

Carl Sagan once said that Venus is the planet in our solar system most like hell. So when are we going back?

Astronomers on Monday reported the detection of a chemical in the acidic Venusian clouds, phosphine, which may be a possible sign of life. That has some planetary scientists itching to return to the sun’s second planet, especially those who feel Venus has long been overlooked in favor of Mars and other destinations.

“If this planet is active and is producing phosphine, and there is something that’s making it in the Venus atmosphere, then by God almighty, forget this Mars nonsense,” said Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University. “We need a lander, an orbiter, we need a program.”

Venus is not easy to visit. Its carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere is 90 times as dense as ours, and surface temperatures average 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Its surface pressure is intense enough to crush some submarines.

In 1961, the Soviet space program began trying to explore Venus. In the decades that followed, it shot dozens of spacecraft toward the world sometimes known as Earth’s twin. While Soviet exploration of Venus started with many misfires, the country became the first to land a spacecraft on another world, and not long after, the first to take photos from the surface of another planet. Their engineering achievements were significant even by modern standards.

After seeing their first round of spacecraft sent into the atmosphere squashed like tin cans, the Soviets realized just how extreme the pressure on Venus was. This trial and error led to the construction of five-ton metal spacecraft built to withstand, even if for just an hour, the immense surface pressures.

Venera 4 in 1967 became the first spacecraft to measure the atmosphere of another planet, detecting large amounts of carbon dioxide that cause the ceaseless Venusian greenhouse effect.

While Mars has always seemed like the apple of the eyes of American space planners, the Mariner and Pioneer programs of the 1960s and ’70s made time for Venus.

Mariner 2 was the first American spacecraft to make it to Venus, in 1962. It determined that temperatures were cooler higher in the clouds, but extremely hot on the surface.

In 1978, the Pioneer missions gave American researchers a closer look. The first of the pair orbited the planet for nearly 14 years, revealing much about the mysterious Venusian atmosphere. It also observed the surface was smoother than Earth’s, and that Venus had very little or perhaps no magnetic field. A second Pioneer mission sent a number of probes into Venus’s atmosphere, returning information on the structure of the clouds and radar readings of the surface.

NASA’s Magellan entered into orbit in 1990 and spent four years mapping the surface and looking for evidence of plate tectonics. It discovered that nearly 85 percent of the surface was covered in old lava flows, hinting at significant past and possible present volcanic activity.

It was also the last of the American visitors, although a number of NASA spacecraft have used Venus as a slingshot as they set course for other destinations.

Venus Express was launched by the European Space Agency in 2005. It orbited the planet for eight years and observed that it still may have been geologically active.

The planet’s only guest from Earth right now is Akatsuki, which was launched by Japan in 2010. The probe missed its meeting with Venus when its engine failed to fire as it headed into orbit. By 2015, the mission’s managers had managed to steer it on a course to orbit and study the planet.

It has since transformed how scientists view our clouded twin. In its study of the physics of the dense cloud layers of Venus, the mission has revealed disturbances in the planet’s winds known as gravity waves, as well as equatorial jet streams in its atmosphere.

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