Russian and U. S. Scientists Team Up to Explore Earth’s Sister Planet, Venus

Artist concept of the Russian Venera-D spacecraft, to be launched in 2025 on a mission to explore Earth's neighbor, Venus.

Artist concept of the Russian Venera-D spacecraft, to be launched in 2025 on a mission to explore Earth's neighbor, Venus. (NASA/JPL-CalTech)

Despite ongoing political tensions between the United States and Russia, the stage is set for a new collaboration between the two countries’ space agencies on a groundbreaking mission to explore the planet Venus.

In late January, a team of Russian and U. S. scientists delivered a report to both NASA and the Russian space agency that outlines how our two countries can work together on a Russian mission, Venera-D, already in development.

Both space agencies share a similar scientific curiosity about Venus and possess valuable expertise in robotic spacecraft and planetary exploration that can be of great benefit to the mission.

Venera-D

The Venera-D spacecraft is planned for launch sometime around 2025. The mission is set to  include an orbital robotic spacecraft that will map Venus’ surface using more powerful radar imaging techniques than in the past two missions.  Both countries sent spacecraft to map the surface in the 1980s.

A global radar map of Venus from NASA's Magellan spacecraft. Radar penetrates Venus' thick atmosphere and cloud layers to reveal the volcanic topography of Venus' surface.
A global radar map of Venus from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft. Radar penetrates Venus’ thick atmosphere and cloud layers to reveal the volcanic topography of Venus’ surface. (NASA/Magellan)

The mission will also include a robotic lander able to withstand the searing, high-pressure environment on Venus’ surface for a longer duration than past landing missions. The 1982 Venera 13 lander is the current record-holder: it survived for 127 minutes before succumbing to the extreme surface conditions.

Photographs of Venus' surface captured by the Soviet Union's Venera 13 lander in 1982.
Photographs of Venus’ surface captured by the Soviet Union’s Venera 13 lander in 1982. (Russian Space Agency)

Another idea being explored by the joint Russian-U.S. team is a solar-powered, dirigible-borne robot that would float around in Venus’ upper atmosphere for up to three months, analyzing the atmospheric composition and weather and the planet’s surface below.

Venus’ Dark Attraction

Venus has long been a subject of scientific intrigue and mystery, as well as exploration, even though other planetary destinations, such as Mars, grab a lot more public attention. Exploration of Mars has revealed a world that was once much more Earth-like, possessing surface water and environmental conditions possibly suitable to support life—and what could capture someone’s curiosity more than that?

But in many ways, Venus is at least as interesting as Mars. Venus is often referred to as “Earth’s twin,” being Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor, of almost equal size and very similar chemical and mineral composition, though their similarities seem to end there.

The atmosphere of Venus is made almost entirely of carbon dioxide, a “greenhouse gas” that captures solar energy to heat the planet’s surface to 462 degrees Celsius, day and night. Atmospheric pressure on Venus’ surface is about 90 times that of Earth—equal to the water pressure half a mile deep in Earth’s oceans. A stove-top pressure cooker comes nowhere near the temperature and pressure of Venus.

Venus also rotates backward, and so slowly that a single Venusian day lasts a grueling 243 Earth days. And Venus’ famous global shroud of cloud is composed of sulfuric acid, which may produce corrosive rain that evaporates before reaching the ground. There is also a lot of evidence of widespread volcanic activity, both past and present.

Was Venus More Like Earth’s Twin in the Past?

As inhospitable to human life and robotic machinery as Venus’ surface is today, there is speculation that long ago Venus may have possessed oceans of liquid water. If true, this would raise the possibility that Venus could have been home to some form of life in the past—something we have speculated about the planet Mars as well.

Earth and its two possibly once Earth-like neighbors, Venus and Mars.
Mars, Earth, and Venus. (NASA)

If Venus—and Mars, for that matter—were once more Earth-like, with oceans of water and environments suitable to sustain life, then both planets today would be valuable troves of information for scientists in understanding how planets like the Earth change over time. What factors caused Earth, Venus, and Mars to evolve in such different directions? We may explore the possible future of our own planet by studying the examples of Venus and Mars.

Scientific curiosity about our world and universe often transcends political rivalries. Present-day tensions between the U. S. and Russia may be a source of anxiety, but there may be some reason for optimism in the willingness of their scientists to work together for to better understand the workings of the world we all live in.

Author

Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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