Could There Be Life in the Cloudtops of Venus?

In the search for life beyond Earth, scientists have turned up some very interesting possibilities and clues. On Mars, there are currently eight functioning robotic missions on the surface of or in orbit investigating the possibility of past (and possibly present) microbial life. Multiple missions are also being planned to explore moons like Titan, Europa, and Enceladus for signs of methanogenic or extreme life.

But what about Earth’s closest neighboring planet, Venus? While conditions on its surface are far too hostile for life as we know it there are those who think it could exist in its atmosphere. In a new study, a team of international researchers addressed the possibility that microbial life could be found in Venus’ cloud tops. This study could answer an enduring mystery about Venus’ atmosphere and lead to future missions to Earth’s “Sister Planet”.

The study, titled “Venus’ Spectral Signatures and the Potential for Life in the Clouds“, recently appeared in the journal Astrobiology. The study was led by Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center and included members from NASA’s Ames Research Center, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California State Polytechnic University, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, and the University of Zielona Góra.

Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus, showing its lightning storms and a volcano in the distance. Credit and ©: European Space Agency/J. Whatmore

For the sake of their study, the team considered the presence of UV contrasts in Venus’ upper atmosphere. These dark patches have been a mystery since they were first observered nearly a century ago by ground-based telescopes.  Since then, scientists have learned that they are made up of concentrated sulfuric acid and other unknown light-absorbing particles, which the team argues could be microbial life.

As Limaye indicated in a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison press statement:

“Venus shows some episodic dark, sulfuric rich patches, with contrasts up to 30 – 40 percent in the ultraviolet, and muted in longer wavelengths. These patches persist for days, changing their shape and contrasts continuously and appear to be scale dependent.”

To illustrate the possibility that these streaks are the result of microbial life, the team considered whether or not extreme bacteria could survive in Venus’ cloud tops. For instance, the lower cloud tops of Venus (47.5 to 50.5 km above the surface) are known to have moderate temperature conditions (~60 °C; 140 °F) and pressure conditions that are similar to that of Earth at sea level (101.325 kPa).

This is far more hospitable than conditions on the surface, where temperatures reach 737 K (462 C; 860 F) and atmospheric pressure is 9200 kPa (92 times that of Earth at sea level). In addition, they considered how on Earth, bacteria has been found at altitudes as high as 41 km (25 mi). On top of that, there are many cases where extreme bacteria here on Earth that could survive in an acidic environment.

A composite image of the planet Venus as seen by the Japanese probe Akatsuki. The clouds of Venus could have environmental conditions conducive to microbial life. Credit: JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science

As Rakesh Mogul, a professor of biological chemistry at California State Polytechnic University and a co-author on the study, indicated, “On Earth, we know that life can thrive in very acidic conditions, can feed on carbon dioxide, and produce sulfuric acid.” This is consistent with the presence of micron-sized sulfuric acid aerosols in Venus upper atmosphere, which could be a metabolic by-product.

In addition, the team also noted that according to some models, Venus had a habitable climate with liquid water on its surface for as long as two billion years – which is much longer than what is believed to have occurred on Mars. In short, they speculate that life could have evolved on the surface of Venus and been swept up into the atmosphere, where it survived as the planet experienced its runaway greenhouse effect.

This study expands on a proposal originally made by Harold Morowitz and famed astronomer Carl Sagan in 1967 and which was investigated by a series of probes sent to Venus between 1962 and 1978. While these missions indicated that surface conditions on Venus ruled out the possibility of life, they also noted that conditions in the lower and middle portions of Venus’ atmosphere – 40 to 60 km (25 – 27 mi) altitude – did not preclude the possibility of microbial life.

For years, Limaye has been revisiting the idea of exploring Venus’ atmosphere for signs of life. The inspiration came in part from a chance meeting at a teachers workshop with Grzegorz Slowik – from the University of Zielona Góra in Poland and a co-author on the study – who told him of how bacteria on Earth have light-absorbing properties similar to the particles that make up the dark patches observed in Venus’ clouds.

Aircraft like the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) could explore the cloud tops of Venus for possible signs of life. Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp

While no probe that has sampled Venus’ atmosphere has been capable of distinguishing between organic and inorganic particles, the ones that make up Venus’ dark patches do have comparable dimensions to some bacteria on Earth. According to Limaye and Mogul, these patches could therefore be similar to algae blooms on Earth, consisting of bacteria that metabolizes the carbon dioxide in Venus’ atmosphere and produces sulfuric acid aerosols.

In the coming years, Venus’ atmosphere could be explored for signs of microbial life by a lighter than air aircraft. One possibility is the Venus Aerial Mobil Platform (VAMP), a concept currently being researched by Northrop Grumman (shown above). Much like lighter-than-air concepts being developed to explore Titan, this vehicle would float and fly around in Venus’ atmosphere and search the cloud tops for biosignatures.

Another possibility is NASA’s possible participation in the Russian Venera-D mission, which is currently scheduled to explore Venus during the late 2020s. This mission would consist of a Russian orbiter and lander to explore Venus’ atmosphere and surface while NASA would contribute a surface station and maneuverable aerial platform.

Another mystery that such a mission could explore, which has a direct bearing on whether or not life may still exist on Venus, is when Venus’ liquid water evaporated. In the last billion years or so, the extensive lava flows that cover the surface have either destroyed or covered up evidence of the planet’s early history. By sampling Venus’ clouds, scientists could determine when all of the planet’s liquid water disappeared, triggering the runaway greenhouse effect that turned it into a hellish landscape.

NASA is currently investigating other concepts to explore Venus’ hostile surface and atmosphere, including an analog robot and a lander that would use a Sterling engine to turn Venus’ atmosphere into a source of power. And with enough time and resources, we might even begin contemplating building floating cities in Venus atmosphere, complete with research facilities.

Further Reading: Space Science and Engineering Center, Astrobiology

NASA Plans to Send CubeSat To Venus to Unlock Atmospheric Mystery

From space, Venus looks like a big, opaque ball. Thanks to its extremely dense atmosphere, which is primarily composed of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, it is impossible to view the surface using conventional methods. As a result, little was learned about its surface until the 20th century, thanks to development of radar, spectroscopic and ultraviolet survey techniques.

Interestingly enough, when viewed in the ultraviolet band, Venus looks like a striped ball, with dark and light areas mingling next to one another. For decades, scientists have theorized that this is due to the presence of some kind of material in Venus’ cloud tops that absorbs light in the ultraviolet wavelength. In the coming years, NASA plans to send a CubeSat mission to Venus in the hopes of solving this enduring mystery.

The mission, known as the CubeSat UV Experiment (CUVE), recently received funding from the Planetary Science Deep Space SmallSat Studies (PSDS3) program, which is headquartered as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Once deployed, CUVE will determine the composition, chemistry, dynamics, and radiative transfer of Venus’ atmosphere using ultraviolet-sensitive instruments and a new carbon-nanotube light-gathering mirror.

Ultraviolet image of Venus taken by NASA’s Pioneer-Venus Orbiter in 1979, lending Venus a striped, light and dark appearance. Credit: NASA

The mission is being led by Valeria Cottini, a researcher from the University of Maryland who is also CUVE’s Principle Investigator (PI). In March of this year, NASA’s PSDS3 program selected it as one of 10 other studies designed to develop mission concepts using small satellites to investigate Venus, Earth’s moon, asteroids, Mars and the outer planets.

Venus is of particular interest to scientists, given the difficulties of exploring its thick and hazardous atmosphere. Despite the of NASA and other space agencies, what is causing the absorption of ultra-violet radiation in the planet’s cloud tops remains a mystery. In the past, observations have shown that half the solar energy the planet receives is absorbed in the ultraviolet band by the upper layer of its atmosphere – the level where sulfuric-acid clouds exist.

Other wavelengths are scattered or reflected into space, which is what gives the planet its yellowish, featureless appearance. Many theories have been advanced to explain the absorption of UV light, which include the possibility that an absorber is being transported from deeper in Venus’ atmosphere by convective processes. Once it reaches the cloud tops, this material would be dispersed by local winds, creating the streaky pattern of absorption.

The bright areas are therefore thought to correspond to regions that do not contain the absorber, while the dark areas do. As Cottini indicated in a recent NASA press release, a CubeSat mission would be ideal for investigating these possibilities:

“Since the maximum absorption of solar energy by Venus occurs in the ultraviolet, determining the nature, concentration, and distribution of the unknown absorber is fundamental. This is a highly-focused mission – perfect for a CubeSat application.”

CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station during Expedition 47. Image: NASA

Such a mission would leverage recent improvements in miniaturization, which have allowed for the creation of smaller, box-sized satellites that can do the same jobs as larger ones. For its mission, CUVE would rely on a miniaturized ultraviolet camera and a miniature spectrometer (allowing for analysis of the atmosphere in multiple wavelengths) as well as miniaturized navigation, electronics, and flight software.

Another key component of the CUVE mission is the carbon nanotube mirror, which is part of a miniature telescope the team is hoping to include. This mirror, which was developed by Peter Chen (a contractor at NASA Goddard), is made by pouring a mixture of epoxy and carbon nanotubes into a mold. This mold is then heated to cure and harden the epoxy, and the mirror is coated with a reflective material of aluminum and silicon dioxide.

In addition to being lightweight and highly stable, this type of mirror is relatively easy to produce. Unlike conventional lenses, it does not require polishing (an expensive and time-consuming process) to remain effective. As Cottini indicated, these and other developments in CubeSat technology could facilitate low-cost missions capable of piggy-backing on existing missions throughout the Solar System.

“CUVE is a targeted mission, with a dedicated science payload and a compact bus to maximize flight opportunities such as a ride-share with another mission to Venus or to a different target,” she said. “CUVE would complement past, current, and future Venus missions and provide great science return at lower cost.”

A cubesat structure, 1U in size. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Svobodat

The team anticipates that in the coming years, the probe will be sent to Venus as part of a larger mission’s secondary payload. Once it reaches Venus, it will be launched and assume a polar orbit around the planet. They estimate that it would take CUVE one-and-a-half years to reach its destination, and the probe would gather data for a period of about six months.

If successful, this mission could pave the way for other low-cost, lightweight satellites that are deployed to other Solar bodies as part of a larger exploration mission. Cottini and her colleagues will also be presenting their proposal for the CUVE satellite and mission at the 2017 European Planetary Science Congress, which is being held from September 17th – 22nd in Riga, Latvia.

Further Reading: NASA

What is the Weather like on Venus?

Welcome back to our planetary weather series! Today, we look at Earth’s overheated “sister planet”, Venus!

Venus is often called Earth’s “Sister Planet” because of all the things they have in common. They are comparable in size, have similar compositions, and both orbit within the Sun’s habitable zone. But beyond that, there are some notable differences that makes Venus a molten hellhole, and about the last place anyone would want to visit!

Much of this has to do with Venus’ atmosphere, which is incredibly dense and entirely hostile to life as we know it. And because of its natural density and composition, the average surface temperature of Venus is hot enough to melt lead. All of this adds up to some pretty interesting weather patterns, which are also incredibly hostile!

Venus Atmosphere:

Although carbon dioxide is invisible, the clouds on Venus are made up of opaque clouds of sulfuric acid, so we can’t see down to the surface using conventional methods. Everything we know about the surface of Venus has been gathered by spacecraft equipped with radar imaging instruments, which can peer through the dense clouds and reveal the surface below.

From the many flybys and atmospheric probes sent into its thick clouds, scientists have learned that Venus’ atmosphere is incredibly dense. In fact, the mass of Venus atmosphere is 93 times that of Earth’s, and the air pressure at the surface is estimated to be as high as 92 bar – i.e. 92 times that of Earth’s at sea level. If it were possible for a human being to stand on the surface of Venus, they would be crushed by the atmosphere.

The composition of the atmosphere is extremely toxic, consisting primarily of carbon dioxide (96.5%) with small amounts of nitrogen (3.5%) and traces of other gases – most notably sulfur dioxide. Combined with its density, the composition generates the strongest greenhouse effect of any planet in the Solar System.

It is also the hottest planet in the Solar System, experiencing mean surface temperatures of 735 K (462 °C; 863.6 °F). Above the dense CO² layer, thick clouds consisting mainly of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid droplets scatter about 90% of the sunlight back into space.

The planet is also isothermal, which means that there is little variation in Venus’ surface temperature between day and night, or the equator and the poles. The planet’s minute axial tilt – less than 3° compared to Earth’s 23.5° – and its very slow rotational period (the planet takes around 243 days to complete a single rotation) also minimizes seasonal temperature variation.

Artist's impression of the surface of Venus. Credit: ESA/AOES
Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus. Credit: ESA/AOES

The only appreciable variation in temperature occurs with altitude. The highest point on Venus, Maxwell Montes, is therefore the coolest point on the planet, with a temperature of about 655 K (380 °C; 716 °F) and an atmospheric pressure of about 4.5 MPa (45 bar).

Meteorological Phenomena:

The weather on Venus is one of the aspects of the planet under constant study from Earth-based telescopes and space missions to Venus. And from what we’ve seen, the weather on Venus is very extreme. The entire atmosphere of the planet circulates around quickly, with winds reaching speeds of up to 85 m/s (300 km/h; 186.4 mph) at the cloud tops, which circle the planet every four to five Earth days.

At this speed, these winds move up to 60 times the speed of the planet’s rotation, whereas Earth’s fastest winds are only 10-20% of the planet’s rotational speed. Spacecraft equipped with ultraviolet imaging instruments are able to observe the cloud motion around Venus, and see how it moves at different layers of the atmosphere. The winds blow in a retrograde direction, and are the fastest near the poles.

Closer to the equator, the wind speeds die down to almost nothing. Because of the thick atmosphere, the winds move much slower as you get close to the surface of Venus, reaching speeds of about 5 km/h. Because it’s so thick, though, the atmosphere is more like water currents than blowing wind at the surface, so it is still capable of blowing dust around and moving small rocks across the surface of Venus.

Over the past six years wind speeds in Venus' atmosphere have been steadily rising (ESA)
Over the past six years wind speeds in Venus’ atmosphere have been steadily rising (ESA

Several flybys past the planet have also indicated that its dense clouds are capable of producing lightning, much like the clouds on Earth. Their intermittent appearance indicates a pattern associated with weather activity, and the lightning rate is at least half of that on Earth. Since Venus does not experience rainfall (except in the form of sulfuric acid), it has been theorized that the lightning is being caused by a volcanic eruption.

What is the weather like on Venus? Terrible, would be the short answer. The long answer is that it is extremely hot, the air pressure is extremely high, there are very strong winds, sulfuric acid rain (at higher altitudes) and lightning storms driven by volcanic eruptions. It is little wonder then why the only practical option for colonizing Venus involves creating  floating cities above the cloud layer.

We have written many articles about Venus for Universe Today. Here’s The Planet Venus, Interesting Facts About Venus, What is the Average Temperature of Venus?, New Map Hints at Venus’ Wet, Volcanic Past, Venus Possibly had Continents, Oceans, How Do We Terraform Venus? and Colonizing Venus With Floating Cities.

Want more information on Venus? Here’s a link to Hubblesite’s News Releases about Venus, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Venus.

We have recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s only about planet Venus. Listen to it here, Episode 50: Venus.

Sources:

What is the Closest Planet to Earth?

A common question when looking at the Solar System and Earth’s place in the grand scheme of it is “which planet is closest to Earth?” Aside from satisfying a person’s general curiosity, this question is also of great importance when it comes to space exploration. And as humanity contemplates mounting manned missions to neighboring planets, it also becomes one of immense practicality.

If, someday, we hope to explore, settle, and colonize other worlds, which would make for the shortest trip? Invariable, the answer is Venus. Often referred to as “Earth’s Twin“, Venus has many similarities to Earth. It is a terrestrial planet, it orbits within the Sun’s habitable zone, and it has an atmosphere that is believed to have once been like Earth’s. Combined with its proximity to us, its little wonder we consider it our twin.

Venus’ Orbit:

Venus orbits the Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 108,208,000 km (0.723 AUs), ranging between 107,477,000 km (0.718 AU) at perihelion and 108,939,000 km (0.728 AU) at aphelion. This makes Venus’ orbit the least eccentric of all the planets in the Solar System. In fact, with an eccentricity of less than 0.01, its orbit is almost circular.

Earth and Venus' orbit compared. Credit: Sky and Telescope
Earth and Venus’ orbit compared. Credit: Sky and Telescope

When Venus lies between Earth and the Sun, it experiences what is known as an inferior conjunction. It is at this point that it makes its closest approach to Earth (and that of any planet) with an average distance of 41 million km (25,476,219 mi). On average, Venus achieves an inferior conjunction with Earth every 584 days.

And because of the decreasing eccentricity of Earth’s orbit, the minimum distances will become greater over the next tens of thousands of years. So not only is it Earth’s closest neighbor (when it makes its closest approach), but it will continue to get cozier with us as time goes on!

Venus vs. Mars:

As Earth’s other neighbor, Mars also has a “close” relationship with Earth. Orbiting our Sun at an average distance of 227,939,200 km (1.52 AU), Mars’ highly eccentric orbit (0.0934) takes it from a distance of 206,700,000 km (1.38 AU) at perihelion to 249,200,000 km (1.666 AU) at aphelion. This makes its orbit one of the more eccentric in our Solar System, second only to Mercury

For Earth and Mars to be at their closest, both planets needs to be on the same side of the Sun, Mars needs to be at its closest distance from the Sun (perihelion), and Earth needs to be at its farthest (aphelion). This is known as opposition, a time when Mars appears as one of the brightest objects in the sky (as a red star), rivaling that of Venus or Jupiter.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA

But even at this point, the distance between Mars and Earth ranges considerably. The closest approach to take place occurred back in 2003, when Earth and Mars were only 56 million km (3,4796,787 mi) apart. And this was the closest they’d been in 50,000 years. The next closest approach will take place on July 27th, 20178, when Earth and Mars will be at a distance of 57.6 million km (35.8 mi) from each other.

It has also been estimated that the closest theoretical approach would take place at a distance of 54.6 million km (33.9 million mi). However, no such approach has been documented in all of recorded history. One would be forced to wonder then why so much of humanity’s exploration efforts (past, present and future) are aimed at Mars. But when one considers just how horrible Venus’ environment is in comparison, the answer becomes clear.

Exploration Efforts:

The study and exploration of Venus has been difficult over the years, owing to the combination of its dense atmosphere and harsh surface environment. Its surface has been imaged only in recent history, thanks to the development of radar imaging. However, many robotic spacecraft and even a few landers have made the journey and discovered much about Earth’s closest neighbor.

The first attempts were made by the Soviets in the 1960s through the Venera Program. Whereas the first mission (Venera-1) failed due to loss of contact, the second (Venera-3) became the first man-made object to enter the atmosphere and strike the surface of another planet (on March 1st, 1966). This was followed by the Venera-4 spacecraft, which launched on June 12th, 1967, and reached the planet roughly four months later (on October 18th).

The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA
The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA

NASA conducted similar missions under the Mariner program. The Mariner 2 mission, which launched on December 14th, 1962, became the first successful interplanetary mission and passed within 34,833 km (21,644 mi) of Venus’ surface. Between the late 60s and mid 70s, NASA conducted  several more flybys using Mariner probes – such as the Mariner 5 mission on Oct. 19th, 1967 and the Mariner 10 mission on Feb. 5th, 1974.

The Soviets launched six more Venera probes between the late 60s and 1975, and four additional missions between the late 70s and early  80s. Venera-5, Venera-6, and Venera-7 all entered Venus’ atmosphere and returned critical data to Earth. Venera 11 and Venera 12 detected Venusian electrical storms; and Venera 13 and Venera 14 landed on the planet and took the first color photographs of the surface. The program came to a close in October 1983, when Venera 15 and Venera 16 were placed in orbit to conduct mapping of the Venusian terrain with synthetic aperture radar.

By the late seventies, NASA commenced the Pioneer Venus Project, which consisted of two separate missions. The first was the Pioneer Venus Orbiter, which inserted into an elliptical orbit around Venus (Dec. 4th, 1978) to study its atmosphere and map the surface. The second, the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe, released four probes which entered the atmosphere on Dec. 9th, 1978, returning data on its composition, winds and heat fluxes.

Pioneer Venus
Artist’s impression of NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter in orbit around Venus. Credit: NASA

In 1985, the Soviets participated in a collaborative venture with several European states to launch the Vega Program. This two-spacecraft initiative was intended to take advantage of the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the inner Solar System, and combine a mission to it with a flyby of Venus. While en route to Halley on June 11th and 15th, the two Vega spacecraft dropped Venera-style probes into Venus’ atmosphere to map its weather.

NASA’s Magellan spacecraft was launched on May 4th, 1989, with a mission to map the surface of Venus with radar. In the course of its four and a half year mission, Magellan provided the most high-resolution images to date of the planet, was able to map 98% of the surface and 95% of its gravity field. In 1994, at the end of its mission, Magellan was sent to its destruction into the atmosphere of Venus to quantify its density.

Venus was observed by the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft during flybys on their respective missions to the outer planets, but Magellan was the last dedicated mission to Venus for over a decade. It was not until October of 2006 and June of 2007 that the MESSENGER probe would conduct a flyby of Venus (and collect data) in order to slow its trajectory for an eventual orbital insertion of Mercury.

The Venus Express, a probe designed and built by the European Space Agency, successfully assumed polar orbit around Venus on April 11th, 2006. This probe conducted a detailed study of the Venusian atmosphere and clouds, and discovered an ozone layer and a swirling double-vortex at the south pole before concluding its mission in December of 2014. Since December 7th, 2015, Japan’s Akatsuki has been in a highly elliptical Venusian orbit.

Because of its hostile surface and atmospheric conditions, Venus has proven to be a tough nut to crack, despite its proximity to Earth. In spite of that, NASA, Roscosmos, and India’s ISRO all have plans for sending additional missions to Venus in the coming years to learn more about our twin planet. And as the century progresses, and if certain people get their way, we may even attempt to send human colonists there!

We have written many articles about Earth and its closest neighbor here at Universe Today. Here’s The Planet Venus, Venus: 50 Years Since Our First Trip, And We’re Going Back, Interesting Facts About Venus, Exploring Venus By Airship, Colonizing Venus With Floating Cities, and How Do We Terraform Venus?

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Astronomy Cast also has an interesting episode on the subject. Listen here, Episode 50: Venus.

NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration

Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts out the call to the general public, hoping to find better or entirely new aerospace architectures, systems, or mission ideas. As part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program has been in operation since 1998, serving as a high-level entry point to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers who want to contribute to human space exploration.

This year, thirteen concepts were chosen for Phase I of the NIAC program, ranging from reprogrammed microorganisms for Mars, a two-dimensional spacecraft that could de-orbit space debris, an analog rover for extreme environments, a robot that turn asteroids into spacecraft, and a next-generation exoplanet hunter. These proposals were awarded $100,000 each for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.

Continue reading “NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration”

Japan’s Akatsuki Spacecraft to Make Second Attempt to Enter Orbit of Venus in December 2015

Back in 2010, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the The Venus Climate Orbiter “Akatsuki” with the intention of learning more about the planet’s weather and surface conditions. Unfortunately, due to engine trouble, the probe failed to make it into the planet’s orbit.

Since that time, it has remained in a heliocentric orbit, some 134 million kilometers from Venus, conducting scientific studies on the solar wind. However, JAXA is going to make one more attempt to slip the probe into Venus’ orbit before its fuel runs out.

Since 2010, JAXA has been working to keep Akatsuki functioning so that they could give the spacecraft another try at entering Venus’ orbit.

After a thorough examination of all the possibilities for the failure, JAXA determined that the probe’s main engine burned out as it attempted to decelerate on approach to the planet. They claim this was likely due to a malfunctioning valve in the spacecraft’s fuel pressure system caused by salt deposits jamming the valve between the helium pressurization tank and the fuel tank. This resulted in high temperatures that damaged the engine’s combustion chamber throat and nozzle.

A radar view of Venus taken by the Magellan spacecraft, with some gaps filled in by the Pioneer Venus orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL
A radar view of Venus taken by the Magellan spacecraft, with some gaps filled in by the Pioneer Venus orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

JAXA adjusted the spacecraft’s orbit so that it would establish a heliocentric orbit, with the hopes that it would be able to swing by Venus again in the future. Initially, the plan was to make another orbit insertion attempt by the end 2016 when the spacecraft’s orbit would bring it back to Venus. But because the spacecraft’s speed has slowed more than expected, JAXA determined if they slowly decelerated Akatsuki even more, Venus would “catch up with it” even sooner. A quicker return to Venus would also be advantageous in terms of the lifespan of the spacecraft and its equipment.

But this second chance will likely be the final chance, depending on how much damage there is to the engines and other systems. The reasons for making this final attempt are quite obvious. In addition to providing vital information on Venus’ meteorological phenomena and surface conditions, the successful orbital insertion of Akatsuki would also be the first time that Japan deployed a satellite around a planet other than Earth.

If all goes well, Akatsuki will enter orbit around Venus at a distance of roughly 300,000 to 400,000 km from the surface, using the probe’s 12 smaller engines since the main engine remains non-functional. The original mission called for the probe to establish an elliptical orbit that would place it 300 to 80,000 km away from Venus’ surface.

This wide variation in distance was intended to provide the chance to study the planet’s meteorological phenomena and its surface in detail, while still being able to observe atmospheric particles escaping into space.

Artist's impression of Venus Express entering orbit in 2006. Credit: ESA - AOES Medialab
Artist’s impression of Venus Express entering orbit in 2006. Image Credit: ESA – AOES Medialab

At a distance of 400,000 km, the image quality and opportunities to capture them are expected to be diminished. However, JAXA is still confident that it will be able to accomplish most of the mission’s scientific goals.

In its original form, these goals included obtaining meteorological information on Venus using four cameras that capture images in the ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. These would be responsible for globally mapping clouds and peering beneath the veil of the planet’s thick atmosphere.

Lightning would be detected with a high-speed imager, and radio-science monitors would observe the vertical structure of the atmosphere. In so doing, JAXA hopes to confirm the existence of surface volcanoes and lighting, both of which were first detected by the ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft. One of the original aims of Akatsuki was to complement the Venus Express mission. But Venus Express has now completed its mission, running out of gas and plunging into the planet’s atmosphere.

But most of all, it is hoped that Akatsuki can provide observational data on the greatest mystery of Venus, which has to do with its surface storms.

Artists impression of lightning storms on Venus. Credit: ESA
Artists impression of lightning storms on Venus. Credit: ESA

Previous observations of the planet have shown that winds that can reach up to 100 m/s (360 km/h or ~225 mph) circle the planet every four to five Earth days. This means that Venus experiences winds that are up to 60 times faster than the speed at which the planet turns, a phenomena known as “Super-rotation”.

Here on Earth, the fastest winds are only capable of reaching between 10 and 20 percent of the planet’s rotation. As such, our current meteorological understanding does not account for these super-high speed winds, and it is hoped that more information on the atmosphere will provide some clues as to how this can happen.

Between the extremely thick clouds, sulfuric rain storms, lightning, and high-speed winds, Venus’ atmosphere is certainly very interesting! Add to the fact that the volcanic, pockmarked surface cannot be surveyed without the help of sophisticated radar or IR imaging, and you begin to understand why JAXA is eager to get their probe into orbit while they still can.

And be sure to check out this video, courtesy of JAXA, detailing the Venus Climate Orbiter mission:

Further Reading: JAXA