Was Venus the first habitable planet in the Solar System? NASA intends to find out. “It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface all the way down to its very core,” said Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist about NASA’s JPL designing two missions to survive the planet’s extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressure. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”
Was Radically Different than the Venus We See Today
“Our models show that there is a real possibility that Venus could have been habitable and radically different from the Venus we see today,” said Michael Way of The Goddard Institute for Space Science about Earth’s ‘twisted sister’ planet. “This opens up all kinds of implications for exoplanets found in what is called the ‘Venus Zone’, which may in fact host liquid water and temperate climates.”
“Our hypothesis is that Venus may have had a stable climate for billions of years. It is possible that the near-global resurfacing event is responsible for its transformation from an Earth-like climate to the hellish hot-house we see today,” said Way.
Will We Learn That Life has Multiple Chemical Origins?
In an email to The Daily Galaxy, Harvard astrophysicist, Avi Loeb wrote: Earth’s nearest neighbors, Venus and Mars, could have hosted life throughout their history. Mars was unable to sustain liquid water on its surface after it lost its atmosphere. Venus went through a runaway greenhouse effect that heated its surface above the boiling temperature of water. But it maintained an atmosphere which at an elevation of about 50 kilometers resembles the Earth’s lower atmosphere. Is there microbial life in the cloud decks of Venus? The only way to find out for sure is by scooping its material with a dedicated space mission.
“If we do find life on either Venus or Mars,” concluded Loeb, “the key question is whether it resembles that on Earth. If not, then we will learn that life has multiple chemical origins. If it does, perhaps terrestrial life originated from one of these planets and we have Venusian or Martian roots.”’
To confirm the current conjectures about Venus, NASA has selected two new missions to Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor. Part of NASA’s Discovery Program, the missions aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world when it has so many other characteristics similar to ours – and may have been the first habitable world in the solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate.
The selected missions as described by NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
DAVINCI+ ((Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) will measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, as well as determine whether the planet ever had an ocean. The mission consists of a descent sphere that will plunge through the planet’s thick atmosphere, making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a runaway hothouse compared the Earth’s.
In addition, DAVINCI+ will return the first high resolution pictures of the unique geological features on Venus known as “tesserae,” which may be comparable to Earth’s continents, suggesting that Venus has plate tectonics. This would be the first U.S.-led mission to Venus’ atmosphere since 1978, and the results from DAVINCI+ could reshape our understanding of terrestrial planet formation in our solar system and beyond. James Garvin of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator. Goddard provides project management.
VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) will map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth. Orbiting Venus with a synthetic aperture radar, VERITAS will chart surface elevations over nearly the entire planet to create 3D reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active on Venus.
VERITAS also will map infrared emissions from Venus’ surface to map its rock type, which is largely unknown, and determine whether active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere. Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is the principal investigator. JPL provides project management. The German Aerospace Center will provide the infrared mapper with the Italian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales contributing to the radar and other parts of the mission.
Understanding the Evolution of Planets and Habitability in our Solar System
“Using cutting-edge technologies that NASA has developed and refined over many years of missions and technology programs,” saysThomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science,”we’re ushering in a new decade of Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet can become a hothouse. Our goals are profound. It is not just understanding the evolution of planets and habitability in our own solar system, but extending beyond these boundaries to exoplanets, an exciting and emerging area of research for NASA.”
Zurbuchen added that he expects powerful synergies across NASA’s science programs, including the James Webb Space Telescope. He anticipates data from these missions will be used by the broadest possible cross section of the scientific community.
In addition to the two missions, NASA selected a pair of technology demonstrations to fly along with them. VERITAS will host the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, built by JPL and funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The ultra-precise clock signal generated with this technology will ultimately help enable autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and enhance radio science observations.
DAVINCI+ will host the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer (CUVIS) built by Goddard. CUVIS will make high resolution measurements of ultraviolet light using a new instrument based on freeform optics. These observations will be used to determine the nature of the unknown ultraviolet absorber in Venus’ atmosphere that absorbs up to half the incoming solar energy.
Image at top of page: Venus via Shutterstock License