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Destination Venus: A third new robotic explorer on the horizon

The European Space Agency's EnVision spacecraft, which will be supported by Nasa, is targeting a launch in the early 2030s

The EnVision mission to Venus will explore why Earth's closest neighbour is so different.
The EnVision mission to Venus will explore why Earth's closest neighbour is so different. (Credit: NASA / JAXA / ISAS / DARTS / Damia Bouic / VR2Planets)

Venus is hotter than ever, with a third new robotic explorer on the horizon.

A week after US space agency Nasa announced two new missions to our closest neighbor, the European Space Agency said earlier this week that it will launch a Venus-orbiting spacecraft in the early 2030s. Named EnVision, the orbiter will attempt to explain why Venus is so “wildly different” from Earth, even though the two planets are similar in size and composition.

According to the European Space Agency, EnVision's scientific instruments will tackle some of the big remaining questions about Earth and Venus. 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. "The spectrometers will monitor trace gases in the atmosphere and analyse surface composition, looking for any changes that might be linked to signs of active volcanism," an official statement on the mission explains.

Also read: Why future missions to Venus will not be as easy as they look

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, the statement adds. The instruments will work together to best characterise the interaction between the planet's different boundaries – from the interior to surface to atmosphere – providing an all-encompassing global view of the planet and its processes.

Nasa's own pair of upcoming missions to our solar system's hottest planet — called DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) and VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) — will be the first for the US in more than 30 years. They'll blast off sometime around 2028 to 2030.

“It's a Venus hat trick!” tweeted Nasa's top science chief, Thomas Zurbuchen.

The Europeans have visited more recently, with their Venus Express in action around the hothouse planet until 2014. Japan has had an orbiter, Akatsuki, around Venus since 2015 to study the planet's climate and atmosphere.

It's a forbidding place: the thick carbon-dioxide atmosphere is home to sulfuric acid clouds. According to the European Space Agency, EnVision will try to understand the origin of these harsh conditions, among other things: what history did Venus experience to arrive at this state and does this foretell Earth's fate should it, too, undergo a catastrophic greenhouse effect? Is Venus still geologically active? Could it have once hosted an ocean and even sustained life? What lessons can be learned about the evolution of terrestrial planets in general, as we discover more Earth-like exoplanets?

Artist rendering of ESA's EnVision spacecraft.
Artist rendering of ESA's EnVision spacecraft. (European Space Agency/Paris Observatory/VR2Planets)

“A new era in the exploration of our closest, yet wildly different, solar system neighbour awaits us,” the European Space Agency's science director, Gunther Hasinger, said in a statement.

EnVision will also significantly improve on the radar images of the surface obtained by Nasa's Magellan in the 1990s. The spacecraft will work together with the DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions to provide the most comprehensive study of Venus ever, the statement adds.

(With inputs from the Associated Press)

Also read: How long is solar system's longest day? Venus has the answer

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