Last week, Planetaria reported on why NASA should return to Venus, and new technology being developed to help make that happen, especially as in longer-lived landers or rovers. With its extremely hostile conditions, Venus has been much less of a priority in more recent years, at least in terms of surface missions, despite it being Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. But now there may be more impetus towards a new mission – not one that NASA would do alone, but rather a joint mission with Russia, known as Venera-D.
The Solar System has been a busy place in recent years, with missions to a diverse range of worlds, from Mars, Jupiter and Saturn to distant Pluto and even comets and asteroids. Most of these have been NASA spacecraft, which continues to lay the path to exploring such distant places. There are, however, some places which have been visited in the past, decades ago, but now are seemingly no longer a priority, such as Uranus and Neptune. But there is another planet which is actually Earth’s closest neighbour, yet was only last visited in the 1970s and 1980s, by American and Soviet spacecraft – Venus.
Sending human astronauts to Mars is a dream shared by many, but there are still challenges to overcome and the question of just how to accomplish it is a subject of intense debate. Some supporters advocate sending a mission directly to Mars, while others think that returning to the Moon first, for potentially beneficial training, is the way to go. Indeed, former astronaut James Lovell, who flew on two trips to the Moon, has also called for a return to the Moon first. NASA itself has stated its desire to send a crewed mission to a nearby asteroid first, instead of the Moon, going a bit farther into space than the Moon as its idea of preparation for the much longer journey to Mars. A major problem has been that NASA has still not set a firm timetable for such a mission; it wants to go to Mars, but the steps to achieving that goal are still unclear.
The New Horizons mission has revolutionized our understanding of Pluto and its moons, after conducting the first-ever flyby last summer. These mysterious worlds were finally seen up close, and this new view created as many, if not more, new questions as it answered old ones. While the flyby may be long over now, the spacecraft itself is still in excellent health and continues to plunge deeper into the Kuiper Belt at the outer fringes of the Solar System. Scientists have been eager for New Horizons to continue exploring this region farther out past Pluto, and now a proposal has been formally submitted to NASA to do just that. This extended mission will conduct a flyby of at least one more Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and last until 2021.
NASA’s next Mars rover is due to launch in July or August 2020, and the number of potential landing sites has now been narrowed down by scientists to eight locations. Out of an initial list of 21 targets, eight sites have been chosen as candidate landing sites for the Mars 2020 Rover. Due to land on Mars in February 2021, the rover will search for rocks which could hold possible evidence of past life on the planet.
Near-Earth asteroids, also known as Near Earth Objects (NEOs), are some of the best studied space rocks in the Solar System, primarily due to the fact that they approach the orbit of Earth, making them potentially dangerous to our home planet. Now, a new study has provided evidence that at least some of them, including dark ones which are more difficult to see, originate from the oddball Euphrosyne family of dark asteroids which are at the outer edge of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but have highly inclined orbits well above the plane or “equator” of the Solar System.
In what may be a significant step toward the seemingly far-off goal of sending a rover to the surface of Venus, NASA has awarded two grants totalling $245,000 to a semiconductor technology firm to design complex integrated circuits which could withstand the extremely harsh environment on this neighboring world.
The exploration of the outer Solar System has revealed a plethora of amazing worlds, the likes of which were little known or even unheard of just a decade ago. Among the most remarkable and tantalizing discoveries are the “ocean moons” such as Europa and Enceladus, which have oceans or seas of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Other moons like Titan, Ganymede, and Callisto may also have them, and even some asteroids. Titan also has seas and lakes of liquid methane/ethane on its surface. With all that water, these small worlds have become a primary focus in the search for possible life elsewhere in the Solar System. Now, a new NASA budget proposal wants to take that a step further and fund new missions to these watery moons.
With so much attention now on the rovers and spacecraft at Mars, Saturn, Ceres, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and, soon, Pluto, it may seem like Earth’s closest planetary neighbor Venus has been forgotten again. But no, Venus is still very much on the minds of researchers who are busy developing a concept airplane which could cruise for years in the hellish planet’s atmosphere.