Private Space Missions: Is Venus Next?

Source/Credit: Venus from Mattias Malmer/NASA/JPL..

NBC news reports that a privately-funding space probe could visit Venus as early as next year as phase one of a three-part mission. The goal of the Venus Life Finder Mission, involving MIT alumni and Rocket Lab, is to search for signs of life or microbial-type life. This effort is another encouraging sign of increased interest in scientific missions throughout the solar system.

An earlier press release on the Venus Life Finder site stated:

The Venus Life Finder Missions are a series of focused astrobiology mission concepts to search for habitability, signs of life, and life itself in the Venus atmosphere. While people have speculated on life in the Venus clouds for decades, we are now able to act with cost-effective and highly-focused missions. A major motivation are unexplained atmospheric chemical anomalies, including the “mysterious UV-absorber”, tens of ppm O2,  SO2 and H2O vertical abundance profiles, the possible presence of PH3 and NH3, and the unknown composition of Mode 3 cloud particles. These anomalies, which have lingered for decades, might be tied to habitability and life’s activities or be indicative of unknown chemistry itself worth exploring.  Our proposed series of VLF missions aim to study Venus’ cloud particles and to continue where the pioneering in situ probe missions from nearly four decades ago left off. The world is poised on the brink of a revolution in space science. Our goal is not to supplant any other efforts but to take advantage of an opportunity for high-risk, high-reward science, which stands to possibly answer one of the greatest scientific mysteries of all, and in the process pioneer a new model of private/public partnership in space exploration.

It has been more than a decade since a government has sent a mission to Venus. The last US mission to Venus was the Magellan launched in May 1989, which started to orbit Venus in 1990 and continued to do so for four years. The European Space Agency sent the Venus Express to the planet in November 2005, while Japan sent the Akatsuki in May 2010.

Interest continues among government parties. For example, just last year NASA announced two new missions to Venus:

DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) to measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, as well as determine whether the planet ever had an ocean. The mission consists of a descent sphere that will plunge through the planet’s thick atmosphere, making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a runaway hothouse compared the Earth’s. It will also will return the first high resolution pictures of the unique geological features on Venus known as “tesserae,” which may be comparable to Earth’s continents, suggesting that Venus has plate tectonics.

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) to map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth. In addition, it will map infrared emissions from Venus’ surface to map its rock type, which is largely unknown, and determine whether active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere.