By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This is the third article in a six-part series on the history of Venus space exploration and research, and the possibility of human colonization on Venus.
In the first and second articles in this series, I described how Venus space research got off to a rocky start in the 1960s, as most early missions launched by both the United States and the Soviet Union failed to reach their targets. However, by the end of the 1970s, both nations were having pretty regular success with their Venus research efforts.
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USSR Launches Venera 11 and 12 in 1978
Not to be outdone by the United States, the USSR launched Venera 11 and 12 in 1978 to keep pace with the United States’ Venus Pioneer missions. Both probes were equipped with landers that made successful touchdowns on the surface.
They too recorded thunder and lightning and reported back on the presence of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. The probes were supposed to take pictures as well, but the camera lens caps on both craft failed to release.
Both Venera 11 and 12 lasted for a remarkably long time (over 1.5 hours for Venera 11 and nearly 2 hours for Venera 12), and in fact, they might have lasted longer. We don’t actually know, because the reason the Soviets lost contact with these probes was not their failure on the surface.
Instead, the orbiters flew out of relay range of the landers, so they might have survived longer on the surface than communication records suggest. But it’s probably reasonable to assume — given the harsh Venusian environment — that the time interval before destruction wasn’t all that much longer.
Soviets Further Expanded Venus Exploration in the 1980s
In 1981, the Soviets took their program another step further with Venera 13 and 14. Venera 13 pushed the limits of remote exploration capability in a number of ways.
First, it lasted more than two hours on Venus despite the tremendous heat and pressure. Second, Venera 13 captured and relayed the first color images of the Venusian surface.
Third, it drilled into the surface of the planet, collected a sample of the ground and analyzed it using an x-ray spectrometer. Venera 13 found the surface to be made of a type of igneous rock called gabbro.
Venera 14 didn’t last quite as long (just under an hour), but it performed some impressive work. Venera 14 also drilled into the surface and analyzed a core sample. It found that the ground where it landed was made of a kind of lava-formed basaltic rock, suggesting that Venus had recently been volcanically active.
In 1983, the Soviets launched the last two probes in the Venera program: Venera 15 and Venera 16. Unlike most of the prior missions, Venera 15 and 16 did not include lander components. Instead, their function was to orbit the planet and to work together in order to take radar images of Venus’s topography.
NASA’s Pioneer Venus 1 mission had previously conducted a radar mapping of Venus. But Venera 15 and 16 utilized a then-advanced technology known as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which allowed both spacecraft to map the Venusian surface in much finer detail.
Compared with Pioneer Venus 1’s resolution of about 75 kilometers (46 miles), Venera 15 and 16 were able to map almost all of the surface of Venus with a resolution of 1-2 kilometers (0.6 to 1.2 miles). This more comprehensive mapping obviously revealed much finer detail of the surface and allowed researchers to glean much more information about the planet’s history.
The next time the USSR would make contact with Venus would be a year later in 1984. However, this mission was not part of the Venera program.
Instead, this effort was an ancillary component of the mission for Vega 1 and 2, space probes that were primarily focused on studying Halley’s Comet during the 1986 flyby. The Soviet Union launched Vega 1 and 2 in 1984. In 1985, they conducted a flyby around Venus to prepare for Halley’s arrival.
While undergoing the Venus flyby, both space probes deployed descent components that consisted of surface landers and balloons that inflated in the Venusian atmosphere. The landers and balloons all worked perfectly, with the balloons surviving in Venus’s atmosphere at varying altitudes for several Earth days before succumbing to the elements. They collected and sent back a plethora of data on the atmospheric conditions of the planet.
NASA Exploration of Venus in the 1980s and ‘90s
A few years later in 1989, NASA would send the Galileo space probe out to Jupiter in order to study this region of our solar system. However, on its way out, Galileo also did a flyby around Venus for a gravity assist.
During the Venus flyby, Galileo took a number of photographs and collected a variety of data on charged particles and the magnetic field strength of Venus. This magnetic field has since been conclusively determined to be very weak.
Also in 1989, NASA sent the Magellan space probe to Venus. In many ways, this mission was a first in terms of really robust research equipment sent by the United States for an in-depth study of Venus.
Magellan achieved orbit around Venus in the summer of 1990. Afterward, it spent the next two years mapping the planet in unprecedented detail.
Previous missions had used radar to map Venus, first at a resolution of around 75 km (NASA Pioneer Venus 1) and then later with a resolution of 1-2 km (USSR Venera 15 and 16). Magellan would improve this mapping by another order of magnitude, with resolutions as high as 100 meters or so. It was able to map nearly the entire planet through its repeated orbits.
Afterward, Magellan used a ‘windmill’ technique and turned its solar arrays in such a way that they would encounter friction with the top of the Venusian atmosphere. The craft was slowly deorbited until it burned up on re-entry in 1994, in accordance with planned mission timelines.
Another spacecraft would not encounter Venus for about half a decade. In 1998 and 1999, the Cassini-Huygens space probe — with an ultimate destination of Saturn — made two separate flybys of Venus for gravity assists.
Cassini-Huygens did not make efforts to collect any serious data during the flybys. However, its cameras did photograph the planet, and one peculiar detail is that Cassini-Huygens did not observe any lightning in the atmosphere as had previously been observed by earlier spacecraft.
During the 20th century, the United States and the USSR were the only nations to engage in Venus space research missions. But in the new millennium, this situation would change. In the next part of this article series, I’ll discuss Venus space research since the turn of the century, including efforts by other countries.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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