Missions search for life on the planet, studying its atmosphere up close: the three missions ready to explore Venus
Of the Moon, by now, we know almost everything. NASA's Curiosity rover is exploring, with very interesting results, Mars. But what about our other neighboring planets?
If Mercury is too hot to be approached, Venus has all the credentials to be the next destination of space exploration. And in fact there are at least three departing in the next few years.
Life on Venus?
The "Evening Star" is much closer to Earth than Mars: if the Red Planet is 360 million kilometers from us, Venus is 60 million kilometers away.
The temperatures on the planet, the second closest after Mercury to the Sun, are extreme: on the surface they even exceed those of Mercury - making impossible the chemical phenomena at the base of life as we know it.
The situation is different on the clouds, in the highest part of the atmosphere: the temperatures are such as to allow the adaptation of some single-celled life forms, despite the extreme acidity of the Venusian atmosphere.
The problem of water remains, practically absent in the atmosphere. But scientists say there may be unexplored areas with pockets of moisture, and we also have evidence of single-celled organisms surviving in very arid areas.
But if NASA and the European Space Agency are exploring Venus, they aren't doing it to look for life. That's why a scientific consortium led by Massachussets Institute of Technology, MIT, is doing it by funding three private missions.
The three missions to Venus
The first mission is very close, because it launches in 2023: it's called the Rocket Lab Mission, named after the California company funding it. Astronomers plan to carry a kilogram of scientific instruments for a passage of about three minutes in the atmosphere of Venus, 48/60 kilometers from the surface of the Planet. Instruments will be carried to investigate whether there are organic molecules using fluorescence - a laser beam is fired at the clouds, and any organic molecules should light up if touched.
The Venus Habitability Mission is then due to start in 2026, to really understand what's in the Venusian atmosphere. For two weeks, a wave balloon will travel 52 kilometers from the planet's surface, with four other mini-probes exploring deeper. The goal is to measure the acidity of the atmosphere, also to look for pockets of water vapor mentioned earlier.
The last stage, at the moment only theoretical, will be in 2029: the Atmosphere Sample Return Mission will try to bring in the laboratory, on Earth, samples of the atmosphere of Venus. Here, too, there should be a weather balloon moving far and wide to collect samples at different altitudes, then sending them to an orbiter waiting in the lower atmosphere, which in turn will carry them to an Earth-bound spacecraft.