Venus has almost been “the forgotten planet,” with only one space mission going there in the past 30 years. But the recent resurgence of interest in Earth’s closest neighbor has NASA and ESA committing to three new missions to Venus, all due to launch by the early 2030s.
ESA’s EnVision mission Venus is slated to take high-resolution optical, spectral and radar images of the planet’s surface. But to do so, the van-sized spacecraft will need to perform a special maneuver called aerobraking to gradually slow down and lower its orbit through the planet’s hot, thick atmosphere. Aerobraking uses atmospheric drag to slow down a spacecraft and EnVision will make thousands of passages through Venus’ atmosphere for about two years.
Radar is finicky. It is extraordinarily useful for a multitude of tasks, but testing it for some particular tasks is complicated since almost everything interferes with it. That challenge is particularly acute when testing an antenna that is supposed to be used in space, which is why a team from the SENER engineering group in Spain decided to take a novel approach to testing the radar antenna the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to use for EnVision – they suspended it from a balloon.
Venus is a difficult place to explore. Only a few missions have ever made it to the surface, in no small part because of how difficult it is to traverse the planet’s atmosphere. That difficulty was confirmed recently by a team led researchers at the University of Lisbon, who found that the upper part of Venus’ atmosphere suffers from hurricane-force winds of up to 360 kilometers per hour.
The search for life on Venus has a fascinating history. Carl Sagan famously and sarcastically said there were obviously dinosaurs there since a thick haze we couldn’t see through covered the surface. More recently, evidence has pointed to a more nuanced idea of how life might exist on our sister planet. A recent announcement of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere caused quite a stir in the research community and numerous denials from other research groups. But science moves on, and now some of the researchers involved in the phosphine finding have come up with a series of small missions that will help settle the question more thoroughly – by directly sampling Venus’ atmosphere for the first time in almost 40 years.
It’s an exciting time to be a Venus watcher. Our sister planet, which has been the target of only one mission since the 1980s, is now the focus of not one, not two, but three missions from NASA and ESA. Combined, they promise to give the closest look ever at the Morning Star, and some of the processes that might have made such a similar world so different from our own.