By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This is the fourth 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, second, and third articles in this series, I described Venus space research by the U.S. and USSR from the beginning of the space age to the 1980s. These two nations would be the only ones to pursue Venus research in the 20th century. But the new millennium has brought new participants to the Venus space exploration effort.
European Space Agency Begins Venus Exploration
Nearly 45 years after the first attempted space research missions to Venus, a third space agency would finally enter the arena of Venus research. The European Space Agency – a group of 22 European member-states that elected to work together on a joint space program – was formed in 1975.
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The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Venus Express mission in 2005, and it arrived at Venus a year later. Venus Express was operational through 2014, and its primary mission focus was to collect data on Venus’s cloud dynamics and weather patterns.
Among important discoveries from Venus Express was the realization that Venus’s cloud cover ‘superrotates.’ In other words, the top layer of the Venusian atmosphere moves in the same direction as the planet’s rotation, but it moves faster than the planet actually rotates.
In this case, the difference in speed is substantial. The atmosphere circles Venus once every five or so Earth days, while the planet itself takes 243 Earth days to make one rotation.
NASA Launched MESSENGER in 2004; Mission Included Venus Flyby
NASA launched the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission in 2004. Although MESSENGER was obviously focused on Mercury as the ultimate goal, it conducted flybys around Venus in 2006 and 2007 and made some additional basic observations and measurements of the planet.
Current Missions to Venus Have Tapered Off
In terms of current missions, Venus research unfortunately seems to have died down in recent decades. There are not nearly as many current missions as there were in the previous century.
In 2010, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) sent a satellite to Venus called Akatsuki (otherwise known as the Venus Climate Orbiter, or VCO). The probe attempted to enter orbit around Venus that same year, but failed to do so.
Akatsuki ended up continuing on in a heliocentric orbit for several more years until 2015. It was finally able to achieve a stable orbit around Venus by firing its attitude control thrusters at a precisely calculated time interval.
Akatuski uses an array of cameras to study the atmospheric dynamics of Venus. Mission scientists collected some unprecedented data from Akatsuki, including an unconfirmed indication that there might be gravity waves present between the different layers within the Venusian cloud cover.
Scientists believe the possible presence of gravity waves is due to varying densities and velocities of the atmospheric layers, and their effects on one another. Although the Venus Climate Orbiter mission was only expected to last for about two years, it is still healthy and operational nearly 10 years later.
The only other current missions that will visit Venus will do so only for gravity assist purposes. In August of 2018, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe, which will conduct research on our sun.
The probe will take about six years to reach its mission orbit around the Sun. In the meantime, it will avail itself of seven different flybys around Venus. However, the Parker Solar Probe isn’t currently planning to collect any data during its visits around Venus.
ESA and JAXA’s BepiColombo Mission to Make Venus Flybys
Similarly, the ESA and JAXA co-sponsored a mission called BepiColombo, which sent a pair of orbiters to Mercury for study of its magnetic field, surface topography, and interior composition. The two spacecraft were launched at the end of 2018 and will take approximately seven years to reach their orbit around Mercury.
Both satellites will make two different flybys around Venus. But like NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, they are not planning to conduct any significant science during these rendezvous.
More Venus Explorations May Come in Future Decades
Despite the current lack of ongoing Venus research, there is some hope that there will be several future missions to return to Venus and study the planet in greater detail. These missions are currently in the planning stages.
First, Russia plans a revival of their Venera legacy program with a new mission called Venera-D. The earliest proposals for this mission were first floated in the early 2000s.
However, the launch date has been pushed back repeatedly. Russia currently projects a launch in either 2026 or 2031. Based on the information released so far, it appears that Venera-D will be the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of Venus research space probes.
Apparently, Venera-D is slated to feature:
- An orbiter that will study atmospheric dynamics
- Two balloons that will be deployed into the cloud cover to measure acoustic and electrical activity
- A handful of other atmospheric probes that will be jettisoned from the balloons to gather additional data
- A lander that the Russians are building to withstand surface temperatures for at least 90 minutes in order to conduct science experiments on the ground
Second, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) also plans a mission to Venus, called Shukrayaan-1. The fledgling Indian space agency already has successful lunar research and Mars research missions in progress, but this launch would be their first Venus-focused mission.
The Shukrayaan-1 mission would consist of an orbiter and a balloon probe, each carrying an arsenal of science experiments for atmospheric study. The exact specifics have not yet been finalized, but it looks as though the probe may be equipped with a radar system for mapping, an ultraviolet spectrometer, several cameras, and a plasma wave detector.
But what about the prospects of human colonization of Venus? In the next part of this article series, we’ll look at what it might take to colonize Venus and how it is perhaps one of the best opportunities for off-world human habitation in the solar system.
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.