Science

New space mission to explore Venus

EnVision will look at the geology and atmosphere of our neighbouring planet to help determine why Earth became the only known planet to sustain life.

A new space mission aims to unveil some of the mysteries of Venus, including whether or not it was once habitable.

British scientists will play a leading role in the mission, called EnVision, to study the geology and atmosphere of our neighbouring planet and help determine why Earth became the only known planet that can sustain life.

As part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cosmic Vision programme, the mission has costs of 610 million euros.

It aims to investigate Venus by researching past and present volcanic activity and tracking the key volcanic gases that sustain its clouds and hostile environment.

Working with European and American scientists, researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, the University of Oxford and Imperial College London will compare geologic and atmospheric processes to those on Earth and other planets.

They hope to discover more about how interactions between Venus’s interior, surface and atmosphere have shaped its evolution.

Venus is the most Earth-like planet in size, composition and distance to our Sun.

It is thought that when they initially formed, Earth and Venus were probably once quite similar, with oceans of molten rock and thick atmospheres of carbon dioxide and steam.

But Earth evolved to become a habitable planet, and Venus may or may not have had a habitable phase with liquid water oceans before developing a runaway greenhouse effect which today cooks its surface to an inhospitable 450C.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “I’m proud that once again British scientists have been chosen to play a leading role in a mission that will expand humankind’s understanding of the universe.

“It is fascinating to consider just how many similarities Venus shares with our Earth, and what its secrets could tell us about our climate as well as what makes our planet so special to be able to sustain life.”

Philippa Mason, Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, VenSAR Science Investigator on the project, said: “With not one but three new missions to Venus, we now have the beginnings of a long-term exploration programme, which will enable important multi-scale observations of Venus’s interior, surface and atmosphere over many years to come.

“We therefore hope that EnVision will stimulate interest among a whole new generation of planetary scientists.”

The EnVision orbiter is expected to launch in 2031.

It will take 15 months to reach Venus, where it will take a further 16 months of aerobraking to get into its low circular orbit.

Once this stage is achieved, the satellite will start its four-year scientific study.

The EnVision mission has been designed to study how geological activity throughout time has driven the evolution of Venus’s climate and habitability.

It will be equipped with a suite of European instruments including a sounder to reveal underground layering, and spectrometers to study the atmosphere and surface.

A Nasa-provided radar will image and map the surface.

In addition, a radio science experiment will probe the planet’s internal structure and gravity field as well as investigate the structure and composition of the atmosphere.

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