Aliens/Ufo

Earthlings, rejoice: We’re visiting Venus again. Twice.

Memo to Elon Musk: You were paying attention to the wrong planet all along. Venus, not Mars, is where it's at.

That much was confirmed Wednesday, when NASA announced the two winners out of dozens of entries in its US$300 million planetary probe contest. VERITAS and DAVINCI+ were chosen as the agency’s next two Discovery missions — and both have our mysterious sister planet in their sights.

The growing community of Venus exploration boosters inside and outside NASA, which I wrote about last year, had hoped at least one of these missions would be anointed — but dared not dream it would be both. Some planetary scientists have been waiting for this day for decades. Leading luminaries promptly lost their shit.

“Instead of one big leap forward, we now take three, because these missions together will be more than the sum of their parts,” says Paul Byrne, a professor of planetary science at North Carolina State University. “To have two missions that tackle different but complementary questions of Venus’ present state and its history of climate change is remarkable.” [Emphasis his.]

“I’m not saying we’ll be flying a helicopter on Venus soon, but we’re poised to make a huge advance in our understanding of the second planet.”

VERITAS will likely launch first, around 2028. It aims to fully map the surface of cloud-shrouded Venus — something not contemplated since the Magellan mission launched way back in 1989. What we have from Magellan is the equivalent of super-basic 8-bit maps, in a time when much of the rest of the solar system has gone 4K. “We have better topographic data from Pluto than we do from Venus,” laments Darby Dyer, chair of NASA’s Venus Exploration Advisory Group.

DAVINCI+, an upgrade of an earlier proposed mission, will also take photos of the planet’s strange volcanic ridges. (This is how little we know: We don’t even have confirmation that the volcanos of Venus are currently active). But its main purpose is to sniff out gases in the thick, soupy Venus atmosphere.

This may help provide more evidence for the presence of bacteria in those carbon-rich clouds. As suggested last year by a viral study that found the complex chemical phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, and theorized by Carl Sagan way back in 1967, our sister planet may be the first one where we find active evidence of alien life. (A later analysis found a fainter phosphine signal, but the researchers are still confident in their findings.)

Forget cloud cuckoo land; Venus could be cloud bacteria land. Our first Venutian missions of the 21st century may be about to find out for sure.

Earthlings, rejoice: We're visiting Venus again. Twice. 1

Flight engineers celebrate Magellan reaching Venus in 1990 — back when chunky monitors, wired phones, and white men in white shirts were all the rage.

“What phosphine has done is move Venus front and center as an exploration target—just like the [possibly fossil-bearing] ALH84001 meteorite did for Mars in the mid 1990s,” says Byrne. “And as they say in show business, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Studies of that meteorite in 1996 prompted Bill Clinton to give a speech about the possibility of life on Mars (one that was later reused for fictional aliens in the movie Contact). It also spurred widespread interest in the first Mars rover, Pathfinder, which landed on the red planet the following year. Prior to that, NASA hadn’t shown much interest in Mars since the Viking landers in the 1970s — the Martian equivalent of the Magellan mission.

Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump made any statements on the Venus news, but their respective NASA bosses were equally thrilled. “It’s time to prioritize Venus,” Trump administrator Jim Bridenstine declared when the phosphine study was released in September. “This is really exciting stuff,” said his successor Bill Nelson, announcing the Discovery mission winners on Wednesday. “What implications beyond our solar system could these two missions have?”

That was a reference to the fact that we keep turning up a ton of exoplanets around the galaxy that live in what astrophysicists call “the Venus zone” around their respective stars. The more we understand our sister planet, then, the more we know what’s waiting for us out there in the great beyond should we ever decide to visit, (Or, given the lethal hassle of interstellar voyages, should we ever decide to send probes in our stead.)

And with Russia also prepared to launch a Venus probe this decade, a new space race is on. Hopefully, the more we launch satellites in her direction, the more Earthlings will learn that we can live and explore quite happily in balloon habitats above the Venutian clouds — which is in many ways a much more hospitable environment than the surface of Mars.

In other words, Cloud City just became a little more real today. Hope you’re taking notes, Elon.

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