ESA’s EnVision Mission Doesn’t Have a lot of Fuel, so it’s Going to Aerobrake in the Atmosphere of Venus

Artist impression of ESA's EnVision mission. Credit:ESA/VR2Planets/Damia Bouic

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.

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High Altitude Life Can’t Explain the Trace Gases in Venus’ Atmosphere

The planet Venus is one of the most inexplainable and mysterious planetary objects in our solar system as its surface is beyond inhospitable for us fragile humans with temperatures at a searing 475 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit) and surface pressures more than 90 times that of Earth. However, its atmosphere is quite a different story as its temperature varies considerably ranging from -143 degrees Celsius (-226 degrees Fahrenheit) at night to 37 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit) in the daytime, and varies based on altitude, as well.

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Venus' Atmosphere Stops it From Locking to the Sun

Venus' surface features are revealed in an image based on data from NASA's Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Of the thousands of exoplanets we’ve discovered, most of them closely orbit red dwarf stars. Part of this is because planets with short orbital periods are easier to find, but part of this is that red dwarf stars make up about 75% of the stars in our galaxy. This propensity of close orbiting planets has some pretty big implications for “potentially habitable” worlds, not the least of which is that most of these planets are likely tidally locked to their star. Or so we’ve thought.

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Testing an Antenna That Will Float in the Atmosphere of Venus

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.

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Windspeeds on Venus Change Dramatically With Altitude

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.

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Wow. Parker Solar Probe Took a Picture of the Surface of Venus

Surface features seen in the WISPR images (left) match ones seen in those from the Magellan mission (right). Credits: NASA/APL/NRL (left), Magellan Team/JPL/USGS (right)

The Parker Solar Probe’s mission is to study the Sun. But the spacecraft’s instruments have nabbed some pretty impressive data on Venus, as it uses the planet for gravity assists in its ever-shrinking solar orbit.

Now, the spacecraft has captured visible light images of Venus’ surface, somehow able to peer through the shroud of clouds in the planet’s atmosphere.

This is complete bonus data that wasn’t ever expected.

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A Private Mission to Scan the Cloud Tops of Venus for Evidence of Life

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.

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Life Could Make Habitable Pockets in Venus’ Atmosphere

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The tantalizing possibility that life exists in the clouds of Venus is once again causing a stir amongst planetary scientists this week. Researchers out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University, and the University of Cambridge have proposed that some longstanding ‘anomalies’ in the composition of Venus’ atmosphere might be explained by the presence of ammonia. But ammonia itself would be a strange compound to discover there, unless some unknown process – such as biological life – was actively producing it. Perhaps more intriguingly, ammonia can remove the acidity from Venus’ hostile cloud-tops, suggesting that an airborne, ammonia-producing microbe might have evolved the ability to turn its hostile surroundings into something habitable.

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Floating “Aerobats” Could be the Best way to Explore the Cloud Tops of Venus

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

According to multiple lines of evidence, Venus was once a much different planet than it is today. But roughly 500 million years ago, a massive resurfacing event triggered a runaway greenhouse effect that led to the hot, poisonous, and hellish environment we see there today. Therefore, the study of Venus presents an opportunity to model the evolution of planetary environments, which can serve as a reference for what could happen in the future.

In the coming years, NASA plans to send lighter-than-air missions to Venus to explore the atmosphere above the cloud tops, where temperatures are stable and atmospheric pressure is comparable to that of Earth. With support from NASA, engineers at West Virginia University (WVU) are developing software that will enable balloon-based aerial robots (aerobots) to survey Venus’ atmosphere in small fleets.

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Eggshell Planets Have a Thin Brittle Crust and No Mountains or Tectonics

'Eggshell planets’ are rocky worlds that have an ultra-thin outer brittle layer and little to no topography. Here, an artist’s rendition of such an exoplanet. (Image: NASA)

Planets without plate tectonics are unlikely to be habitable. But currently, we’ve never seen the surface of an exoplanet to determine if plate tectonics are active. Scientists piece together their likely surface structures from other evidence. Is there a way to determine what exoplanets might be eggshells, and eliminate them as potentially habitable?

The authors of a newly-published paper say there is.

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