Why Venus Is Soon to Be the Most Exciting Place in the Solar System

Venus as seen from the International Space Station in 2015.

Venus as seen from the International Space Station in 2015.

It’s hot. It’s toxic. It spins backwards and is covered in volcanoes. And we’re headed there soon. Three Venus missions, recently announced by NASA and the European Space Agency, are going to reveal more than we’ve ever known about the scorcher of a planet, a place that many scientists describe as Earth’s evil twin.

In recent weeks, NASA green-lit two Venus missions, VERITAS and DAVINCI+, while the ESA announced a Venus orbiter called EnVision. Already, planetary scientists are exhilarated by the possibilities. We spoke with several experts about why Venus is so exciting.

“It’s only beginning to hit me what this means,” said Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, in a video call. “I’m gonna lose my shit every time a new paper comes out of it.” Fundamentally, he said, the reason for our return to Venus comes down to understanding why the planet “is our sibling and not our twin.”

“How is it that you have a planet that is almost the same size as Earth, made of presumably about the same stuff, in about the same compositions, orbiting the same star, and that has the same age—how do you have two worlds that are on paper the same, that are yet so vastly different?” Byrne explained. “EnVision, VERITAS, and DAVINCI+ are going to provide an unbelievable and unexpectedly solid foundation for how we tackle this question.”

Some aesthetic renderings of DAVINCI+’s arrival on Venus.

Some aesthetic renderings of DAVINCI+’s arrival on Venus.
Illustration: NASA GSFC visualization and CI Labs Michael Lentz and colleagues

NASA’s VERITAS is an orbiter that will peer through Venus’ dense clouds to understand the planet’s topography, surface chemistry, and even look deeper into the planet to understand its geologic processes. The agency’s second mission, DAVINCI+, will consist of a probe that will descend through Venus’ atmosphere, sampling its chemistry, winds, and pressure and even taking high-resolution images of one region of the planet—a huge upgrade on the only surface images of Venus so far taken, the most recent being by USSR missions nearly 40 years ago. The ESA’s EnVision, also an orbiter, will inspect the planet’s insides and atmosphere, supplementing the goals of both NASA missions. All are set to launch between 2038 and 2031.

“I was a bit giddy all day after I heard the announcement,” said Katie Cooper, a planetary scientist at Washington State University who specializes in tectonic evolution, in an email. “I’m particularly excited to learn more about the plateaus on Venus, which are interesting but challenging analogs to Earth’s own large plateaus. On Earth, plateaus like the Tibetan Plateau or the Altiplano Plateau have their origins in plate tectonics, but on Venus that may not be the case.”

Cooper added that what we learn “will not only give us insight into Venus, but also pre-plate tectonic periods within Earth’s own history.”

Venus is covered in scrunchy land features called tesserae. These tesserae make up large swathes of Venusian regions like Alpha Regio, a sprawling plateau twice the size of…

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