Why we should explore Venus before Mars


There are some encouraging signs. Russia is working on its first Venus probe since 1983, the long-delayed and (to English ears) unfortunately-named Venera-D. Its goal is to study Venus’ greenhouse effect, and look at why the atmosphere rotates faster than the planet itself. Venera-D aims to deliver a lander, too; with today’s materials and technology, landers should be able to last a lot longer than a few hours on the planet’s pressurized surface.

The tentative launch date for Venera-D is 2026. By then it might also include VAMP, a proposal by aerospace companies, previously endorsed by NASA, for autonomous balloons that would probe the all-important 31-mile cloud layer, looking for signs of microbial life.

NASA is noncommittal on such things right now, possibly wary of any news that might distract attention from Trump’s favored Mars mission. There are two Venus-bound contenders for its 2021 Discovery program, which allocates around $300 million, total, per multi-year mission, mere crumbs from the $23 billion annual NASA budget. DAVINCI would be the first atmospheric probe to Venus since Magellan, and the first ever to take photos of her weird volcanic ridges. VERITAS would also focus on the surface, finally giving us better maps of our sister planet than we have of Pluto.

Which is nice and all, but these two missions were finalists for the last Discovery program too, and didn’t get picked then. You can forgive the Venus community for feeling like Charlie Brown, with NASA playing Lucy holding the football. (I hope Peanuts references have survived in your era.) They’re also frustrated that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine hasn’t yet committed to swinging by Venus on the agency’s crewed Mars trip.

“Flying by Venus on the way to Mars minimizes delta-V, using less fuel and making the trip shorter,” planetary scientist Noam Izenberg points out. And if they’re swinging by the planet anyway, he adds, you might as well drop a couple of drone probes that the astronauts can control in real time, picking up samples: “This is value-added science you can’t do by remote probes alone.”

Not even this swing-by plan is as bold as HAVOC, the NASA crewed mission concept from Obama’s last term (which came with a nifty video, above). The five-phase proposal makes for fascinating reading: We send a robot balloon; we send a crew to orbit for 30 days; we send a crew to the 31-mile cloud layer for 30 days; we establish a permanent balloon-based habitat. I’d love to provide some quotes for posterity from the HAVOC scientists, but NASA, solicitous in many other areas, never responded to my request to speak to them.

Which leaves us with only Venus’ old friends, the science fiction writers, to imagine what that permanent habitat might look like in your century. The first book of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, the basis for the popular TV show, mentions a legal firm that had been involved in the “epic failure of the Venusian cloud cities” which led to a “decades-long lawsuit.” No further details are offered — and no spoilers, but this is a setup for the book’s ending, which requires that Venus be uninhabited.

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